Rutgers on the rebound under Rice
When he was hired to resurrect Rutgers’ downtrodden basketball program, Mike Rice knew the day would come when fans flocked to watch his players on the court.
Rice, though, figured it would happen during the regular season.
Not the summer.
But that’s exactly what the Scarlet Knights freshmen and newcomers are expecting as they prepare to open play in the Jersey Shore league later this month. Even though the league isn’t affiliated with the university, Rutgers officials continue to field calls from fans inquiring about game schedules. On message boards, diehards make plans to meet in the stands.
“There’s definitely a buzz,” said Rice, who signed the nation’s 23-ranked recruiting class in 2011. “It’s obvious there’s a different mentality about Rutgers basketball.”
The amazing thing is that it happened so quickly.
It was only a year ago when Rice, the former Robert Morris coach, was hired to turn around a Scarlet Knights program that hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1983. Rutgers had gone 41-109 in Big East play the nine years before his arrival, never finishing higher than 14th in the conference standings under previous coach Fred Hill.
Rice inherited a roster that featured just eight scholarship players – and no experienced big men. Still, the Scarlet Knights posted the same record (15-17, 5-13) in Rice’s first season as it had the year before, which was impressive considering they did it without standout guard Mike Rosario, who transferred to Florida.
“Everything we had going against us, with eight scholarship players and whatever else … none of it fazed our guys,” Rice said. “Regardless of the score, whether we were home or away or if the other team was ranked, we took on a fighter’s mentality.
“I can almost say that I got the most out of them that I possibly could’ve because they did it on a daily basis.”
Pleased as he was with his team’s progress, Rice is hoping for even better things in 2011-12. Rutgers loses three of its top five scorers in Jonathan Mitchell (14.9 points), James Beatty (8.8) and Mike Coburn (8.8.)
But veteran forward Dane Miller returns along with emerging power forward Gilvydas Biruta, who will compete for Lithuania this summer in the U-20 European Championships.
The biggest source for excitement, though, centers on the eight new faces who will dot next year’s roster. Leading the way is 6-8 forward Kadeem Jack, a four-star prospect from New York who enrolled at Rutgers last winter and spent the spring semester working out with his new team.
“When high school kids get here, they haven’t had a chance to watch themselves on tape very much,” Rice said. “But now he’s been able to do that with us, so he can understand what we want and why we’re yelling at him sometimes.
“It takes time for a lot of freshmen [to adjust] and he got a head start.”
Chances are good that Jack will start alongside Biruta in the paint with Miller at small forward. Mix in signees such as Derrick Randall and Greg Lewis – both of whom are 6-9 – and the Scarlet Knights finally have some depth in the paint.
“It’ll be nice for our guards to have some options,” Rice said.
Speaking of the backcourt, Rice is excited about freshmen point guards Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears. Although Mack is a bit more “polished,” Rice said Seagears’ athleticism gives him a huge upside. A New Jersey native, Mack had offers from various Big East schools such as Connecticut and St. John’s. Rice convinced him to stay close to home.
Mack’s signing certainly caught people’s attention.
The New York-New Jersey area is loaded with players who should have Rutgers high atop their list when it comes to choosing a school. But past Scarlet Knights coaches have had trouble signing them.
“I didn’t really pay attention to Rutgers until Mike Rice got here,” Mack said. “He has high energy. He wants you to get better every time you step on the court. He’s intense just like I am. We’re a perfect match.”
Rice said getting top-flight players such as Mack to come to Rutgers wasn’t as tough as some people might expect.
“When you don’t have a point guard on your roster, it definitely helps,” Rice chuckled. “We were able to promise them immediate playing time. I told them they could become the class that turned it all around.
“It certainly won’t be easy in the Big East. You’ve got to jump four or five really good programs just to get into the top 10 in this league.”
Rice knows that will happen eventually – maybe even this year. Even though many of his top players will be freshmen, Rice said he isn’t going to lower his expectations, and his doesn’t want Scarlet Knights fans to, either.
“They’re going to need time to grow,” Rice said. But am I going to downplay [their talent] while that happens? No. Things around here have been downplayed for 22 years. Our fans are going to have fun watching this team develop from the first game of the season all the way up until they’re seniors.”