Former Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell sees similarities between his previous job and his current position at Rutgers.
Even with a 75-73 overtime loss to the Seawolves on Friday night, Pikiell has the Rutgers men’s basketball team trending in the right direction with a 10-4 record, including a 71-65 win over then-No. 15 Seton Hall on Dec. 16.
When Pikiell took over at Stony Brook before the start of the 2005-06 season, the Seawolves had a struggling program desperate for improvement.
During Pikiell’s 11 years at the helm, he turned the Seawolves into an America East power. He compiled a 192-155 record with six seasons of at least 20 wins — including a trip to the 2016 NCAA Tournament that ended with a first-round loss to Kentucky — before accepting the same position at Rutgers.
Now in his second season at his new school, Pikiell finds himself in a similar situation with a program struggling on the court and a school with staff turnover. But sitting in his office 90 minutes before Friday’s tipoff, Pikiell found the similarities between the schools interesting.
“We had a fan base there that was small, but they were passionate,” Pikiell said about Stony Brook. “And this fan base here is way bigger, people are really passionate, so it’s exciting. I do see some of the similarities, but I do see some of the same obstacles that I had to jump over when I was at Stony Brook.”
Pikiell has constant reminders of the competition he’s up against. His new office — like his old one on Long Island — is filled with red, but his new home has emblems on the wall of Michigan, Michigan State and the other Big Ten powers he will begin to face in the coming weeks.
“It’s a great league,” Pikiell said. “You see the teams on the board there from Maryland to Indiana to Michigan to Michigan State, so it’s a league that you really have to come to work every day to make your program better.”
Pikiell conceded that Friday wasn’t an easy day for him. He was coaching against players he recruited and ultimately needed to leave after signing a five-year deal worth a reported $8 million with Rutgers. One was Jakub Petras, a 6-11 senior from Slovakia who hit the winning shot for Stony Brook as time expired in overtime.
“I’m very familiar with the roster and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the program,” Pikiell said before the game. “So whenever you play those kinds of games, it’s tough.”
After the game, Pikiell gave all the credit to Stony Brook. Current Seawolves coach Jeff Boals, who served as an assistant coach at Ohio State University for seven seasons before replacing Pikiell, said it couldn’t have been an easy game for his predecessor.
“It’s tough to play those types of games,” Boals said. “We have guys who he recruited and who he has a relationship with, so there’s always an extra edge there.”
Those players were motivated by the opportunity to play against their former coach one more time after losing to Rutgers, 71-66, on Long Island last season.
“Yeah, it was more motivation to come out and show that we’re good enough and beat them,” said Akwasi Yeboah, a sophomore who redshirted under Pikiell in 2015-16 and scored 21 points Friday. “I just wanted that win so bad just because it’s the relationship-type thing where an old coach moves on and you just want to show you’re good, you can compete with anyone.”
Despite Friday’s result, things appear different around Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 15-18 record in 2016-17 — the most wins for the program since the 2012-13 season — and Pikiell continues to see improvement in hopes of turning around another program.
“I think we’ve come a long way in a year and a half since taking over the program,” he said. “I’m really excited.”
THE PIKIELL FILE