Youth and 14-18 record aside, Mike Rice still improved in his second season at Rutgers, taking Scarlet Knights to 11th-place Big East finish after ending his first campaign in the No. 13 spot. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)
Just like St. John's, Rutgers entered the 2011-12 season in a similar situation. After the loss of four seniors, three of whom were starters for head coach Mike Rice in his maiden voyage on the banks of the old Raritan, the Scarlet Knights seemingly rebuilt from scratch with one of the program's highest-rated recruiting classes in recent memory. The end result was a 14-18 record which included within it just as many lows (losses to Illinois State, Richmond and DePaul) as there were highs. (Upset wins over Florida and Connecticut as well as a near-upset of Big East regular season champion Syracuse)
In this campaign, Rutgers did uncover a hidden gem in the form of freshman guard Eli Carter. Carter, a former star at St. Anthony's in Jersey City under Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley before transferring to prep school at Brewster Academy, was Rice's only player to average double figures this past year. With a 13.8 points per game clip and 35 percent three-point shooting rate, Carter picked up the slack left by former point guard James Beatty by performing just as well on the ball as he did off it. When Carter served as the Scarlet Knights' shooting guard, Jerome Seagears was Rutgers' main facilitator. The Maryland native's three in overtime to defeat Seton Hall at the Prudential Center helped keep the Pirates out of the NCAA Tournament; and when Seagears was not at the controls of the Rutgers offense, fellow rookie Myles Mack was. A starter at the beginning of the season, Mack came into his own once Rice brought him off the bench, highlighted by a 22-point performance in the Scarlet Knights' victory over Stony Brook at Madison Square Garden. Junior forward Dane Miller was the team's leading rebounder despite an inconsistent offensive season that saw his productivity dip amid expectations that he would replace Jonathan Mitchell as the face of the program, while Mike Poole and Austin Johnson joined Mack as the main sources of production off the bench.
Rice's other incoming recruits were hampered by injuries (Kadeem Jack and Malick Kone) and lack of playing time, (Derrick Randall and Greg Lewis) but all four along with Austin Carroll; who will return with a medical redshirt, will help pick up the slack vacated by the transfer of sophomore forward Gilvydas Biruta. Biruta averaged nearly ten points per game despite frequent foul trouble, and was without question the most important player on the court for Rutgers more often than not. It is widely expected that he will resurface at Rhode Island, where he will reunite with former Wagner coach Dan Hurley, who coached Biruta at St. Benedict's Prep.
Rutgers does not have any incoming recruits for 2012 now that Jordan Goodman has decommitted, but the cupboard is more than full with a group of players that will once again surprise a lot of people next season. Mike Rice set a goal of a winning record in the Big East prior to last season, and with everyone healthy as the coach prepares for his third year at the helm, the path to the upper half of the conference could be clearer even with the obstacle of having to replace Biruta, as Kansas State transfer Wally Judge will be eligible after sitting out this past year. It is widely expected that Judge will make an impact similar to former Rutgers big man and NBA draft pick Hamady Ndiaye, which will make for even greater optimism on the banks of the old Raritan.