Steve Pikiell sends mask message as Rutgers basketball romps Maine after COVID layoff

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PISCATAWAY — Steve Pikiell didn’t know what to expect when his Rutgers basketball players took the court Thursday after a 17-day COVID layoff, so he was pleased with their 80-64 handling of Maine.

The head coach did, however, know one thing for sure: His mask was going to be glued to his face.

To send a message amid a sharp spike in the pandemic, Pikiell coached the entire game with his mask on. He removed it only briefly to drink water and occasionally to address an official. For the first time, he donned it during his postgame press conference — even though it was virtual.

“I’ve worn it all day,” he said. “I haven’t taken it off.”

Steve Pikiell wears a mask during his press conference after Rutgers basketball's win over Maine.
Steve Pikiell wears a mask during his press conference after Rutgers basketball's win over Maine.

It was not easy. Last year, like most coaches, Pikiell wore a mask but removed it frequently during games. And besides, he coached in empty or mostly empty arenas. On Thursday there were 2,500 fans at Jersey Mike’s Arena and music blared during timeouts.

“It’s real hard to coach with a mask on,” he said. “Sometimes, quite honestly, the players don’t want to listen to you anyway. Now they have great excuse: I can’t hear you, I didn’t see your lips moving, I didn’t know you were talking to me. I’ve heard just about everything.”

Although he wore a clear-style mask and projected well enough to be heard in the stands, his players conceded it was tough to make out the words at times.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach Steve Pikiell coaches against the Maine Black Bears
Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach Steve Pikiell coaches against the Maine Black Bears

“He was saying now we can call our own plays,” postgrad guard Geo Baker said, “That’s what he expects from us anyway. Me and Paul (Mulcahy) are two veteran guards and we’ve got other vets. When you’re in the game, you may see something that someone who is coaching or watching may not see.”

It certainly wasn’t a hindrance against Maine. The Scarlet Knights were smooth as silk offensively, assisting 21 of 27 buckets in a ball-sharing clinic.

“When we do hear him, we’re still going to run exactly what he says,” Baker said. “But it’s definitely difficult. You’ve kind of got to come over to him if you really want to hear what he’s saying, because you really can’t see anything he’s saying.”

If it was difficult in a mostly-empty arena against Maine, it’s going to be impossible when Michigan visits Jan. 4.

“If we hear him, we hear him; if we don’t, we don’t,” Mulcahy said. “He does a really good job with the mask. To me sometimes it’s frustrating, but he keeps it on, and he’s sweating.”

Why is Pikiell going to such lengths? He wants to reassure fans who have to wear masks in the arena that it’s OK.

“I think it’s really important,” he said. “The alternative is to not have fans in the stands. We did that already. Our staff, our players don’t want to go back to that. We want to keep people coming and watching this basketball team. They deserve it. They’ve sacrificed, now it’s two years of living like this.

“It’s real hard to coach with mask on, but it’s worth it if we can keep people in the stands. Hopefully we did a good job with it, and hopefully our fans, who are awesome, did a good job with it.”

And if the players don’t fulfill his directives one too many times?

“I might just start writing stuff down now,” he said with a chuckle. “I know they can all read.”

FIVE TAKEAWAYS

1. Happy returns

The two Rutgers players who spoke with reporters afterward, Baker and Mulcahy, had managed to avoid contracting COVID. Both discussed the layoff's effects.

"Everybody was just happy to be in the floor, happy to see some fans," Baker said. "We’re happy right now just to win a basketball game. Winning in college basketball is hard enough no matter who you’re playing. It gets even harder when you’ve had 17 days off and just one practice. We definitely felt it in our legs a little bit.”

The postgrad guard moved into fifth place on Rutgers' career 3-point list with 198, passing Donnell Lumpkin and Jeff Greer. He said he went home over Christmas and got much-needed time to heal his injured hamstring.

"I was looking at it like, ‘This isn’t happening to me; it’s happening for me,'" Baker said. "Got to rest my hamstring and definitely felt better today.”

Mulcahy, who scored 14 points, made all four of his 3-pointers and added four boards and four assists, spent the layoff working on his shot and it showed.

"(Assistant coach) T.J. Thompson and I started to shoot again, which felt good," he said. "I was blessed to be able to go home and be with my family, which was really refreshing. Some of the guys didn’t have that opportunity."

Some members of the team had to spend Christmas in quarantine. The first full practice took place Wednesday. The only player not present against Maine was postgrad center Ralph Gonzales-Agee, who was tending to a family matter in California.

MORE: Mental health a concern after RU players endure quarantine Christmas

Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Geo Baker (0) dribbles as Maine Black Bears guard Ja'Shonte Wright-Mcleish (2) defends during the first half at Jersey Mike's Arena.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Geo Baker (0) dribbles as Maine Black Bears guard Ja'Shonte Wright-Mcleish (2) defends during the first half at Jersey Mike's Arena.

2. Great tempo

It looks like this group learned the lesson of November’s stunning loss to Lafayette: When you’re superior athletically, use it. The Scarlet Knights pushed the ball whenever opportunity arose and outscored Maine 18-3 in fast-break points. And the ball-sharing on the break was excellent.

"I was nervous," Pikiell said. "We haven’t run plays, we haven’t been together at all. I want them to play together and I thought we really passed the ball. That’s what I was most pleased with."

3. Cliff Omoruyi dominated

A Big Ten center should break a low-major over a knee, and that’s what Omoruyi did. The sophomore tallied 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight boards. He was a force in transition, flushing multiple lobs, and showed confidence by taking (and making) some shots outside the paint.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Clifford Omoruyi (11) dunks against Maine Black Bears forward Ata Turgut (4) during the first half at Jersey Mike's Arena.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Clifford Omoruyi (11) dunks against Maine Black Bears forward Ata Turgut (4) during the first half at Jersey Mike's Arena.

4. Eye-opening minutes

As you might expect under the circumstances, Pikiell used 11 players. After the long layoff, it was important to get everyone some run. But he wound up riding his starters for 30-plus minutes each, and no one from the bench gave him more than 10. Something to keep in mind as the Scarlet Knights play two more games over the next five days.

"I'm trying to get everyone some minutes, here but also wanted to make sure we came out of this game with the win," Pikiell said when asked about the distribution.

5. Small crowd

This was one of the smallest crowds of the Pikiell era, 2,500 tops, including only a few dozen students. A mix of the virus’ explosion and the game’s rescheduling to different day and weekday afternoon tip time surely factored in.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if the COVID protocols reduce attendance levels. It’s worth noting that there appeared to be close to 100 percent mask-wearing compliance.

What's next

Rutgers (6-5 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) concludes its non-conference slate against Central Connecticut State (3-10) Saturday at 5 p.m. The Big Ten Network has picked up the game.

Pikiell has deep ties to CCSU. He and current head coach Patrick Sellers were assistants there together from 1999-2001. And his father worked there for 25 years.

"He did a lot of different jobs, but he was the vice president (for finance) at the end of his career," Pikiell said. "We kind of grew up on that campus, my nine brothers and sisters."

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Rutgers basketball cruises past Maine in return from COVID layoff

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