After two years, Mike Rice is finally content with what he has at Rutgers, insisting Scarlet Knights are on right track toward rebuilding following Fred Hill era. (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)
Yesterday, Villanova got its moment in the sun in our Big East preview series. Today, we cross state lines from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and take an in-depth look at a team who beat the Wildcats two years ago on this unforgettable four-point play from the great Jonathan Mitchell.
Last year, Mike Rice admitted he made a few mistakes in his second season on the banks of the old Raritan, one in which he again intimated at this past Wednesday's Big East media day that he really had not prepared for how to manage a roster with seven freshmen that had a roller coaster of a 14-18 season, with more than its share of highs (wins over Florida, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Cincinnati) and lows. (losses to Illinois State, Richmond, LSU and DePaul)
"You're always getting better," Rice said when I asked about his evolution as a coach since arriving in Piscataway following two consecutive Northeast Conference championships at Robert Morris, which has continued its winning ways under Andy Toole. "I made a lot of mistakes last year. Year three Coach Rice is better than year one Coach Rice."
The best thing about Rice's players this season is that they have all gotten older, acquiring experience last season that will be invaluable on the court, especially in Big East play. Sophomore guard Eli Carter, the only Scarlet Knights player to average double figures in scoring last year, is a big reason why as he enters his second season alongside fellow sophomore Jerome Seagears, who will run the point with Carter off the ball. Seagears evolved in his first season as the year went on, ending his rookie campaign with averages of over seven points and three rebounds per game.
On the wing for Rutgers will be Mike Poole, now in his junior season for Rice, and the coach has praised Poole's leadership and consistency. "He's my most consistent player since I've been here," Rice firmly stated, "and that speaks volumes. He's fixing problems in practice. If I have underclassmen fixing the problems, it's better than me fixing the problems because it comes from your peers." Forward Dane Miller enters his final season on the banks having become more consistent as well according to his coach following a junior season in which his offensive productivity fluctuated. "I see a more consistent Dane Miller," (in practice) Rice said. "If he can maintain it, he'll have a successful year."
Replacing Gilvydas Biruta, who transferred to Rhode Island in the offseason to play for his high school coach Dan Hurley, will be Wally Judge, the 6-9 big man who is finally eligible after sitting out last season on his way to New Jersey from Kansas State. Judge has already been the subject of rave reviews, and could be the key to the Scarlet Knights' season. "Physically, he's what we've missed the last two years in this league," said Rice of his new forward, who will have several opportunities to potentially become a double-double per night player for Rutgers. Rice will also undoubtedly count on his bench, led last season by Myles Mack coming into the backcourt as the first substitute. "I'm not sure what his role will be," the coach said of Mack at media day last week, "but he'll be out there at the end of the game. He's one of our top five players in every practice." Rice's second unit also includes forwards Kadeem Jack, Derrick Randall, Greg Lewis and Austin Johnson, all of whom will most likely see considerable playing time if they can stay healthy, as will swingmen Malick Kone and junior college transfer Vincent Garrett, who is a newcomer entering his junior season.
Rutgers opens its 2012-13 campaign at the RAC with a November 9th home showdown against John Dunne and a Saint Peter's team that will be looking to return to the top half of the MAAC. The game will also be a homecoming for former Knight Patrick Jackson, who transferred last season. Three days later, Sacred Heart invades Piscataway before Rutgers hits the road to face in-state rival Princeton on November 16th. A November 20th home game with Boston University precedes road trips to UNC-Greensboro (November 25th) and Ole Miss, (December 1st as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge) with the Scarlet Knights continuing their journey away from home with a December 8th tipoff against Iona in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. Said Rice of his nonconference schedule, which has come under some fire by some for not including an in-season tournament: "I like our schedule. It's a well-thought out schedule for this team. There are a lot of challenges to prepare us for the Big East."
Rutgers returns to the RAC for a four-game homestand that will take them up to Big East play, with games against George Washington, (December 11th) UAB, (December 16th) Howard (December 21st) and Rider. (December 28th) The Scarlet Knights' Big East and 2013 opener will be their final conference trip to Syracuse on January 2nd, as Jim Boeheim and the Orange will be departing at the end of the season to join the ACC. Rutgers gets Jamie Dixon and Pitt at home three days later before returning to the Garden on January 9th to play St. John's at the "World's Most Famous Arena" for the first time since the infamous Big East Tournament game in which officials Jim Burr and Tim Higgins missed Red Storm forward Justin Brownlee stepping out of bounds with 1.7 seconds left in regulation. The Knights play three of their next four in Piscataway, welcoming Cincinnati (January 12th) and USF (January 17th) before a road trip to Notre Dame on January 19th sandwiches the back end of a home-and-home series with St. John's four days later.
The Scarlet Knights play their next two on the road, first at the XL Center for UConn and new coach Kevin Ollie on January 27th before traveling to Cincinnati to complete a home-and-home three days later. Rutgers then opens February on a three-game homestand, hosting Louisville, (February 6th) Georgetown (February 9th) and archrival Seton Hall. (February 12th) A road trip to Chicago to meet DePaul on February 16th and the Pavilion two days later against Villanova will take Rutgers into its final four games, which alternate between the RAC and the road. Rutgers faces Providence in Piscataway on February 23rd before getting a week off prior to their showdown with Georgetown at the Verizon Center to complete the back end of a home-and-home series with the Hoyas. The Scarlet Knights welcome Marquette to the RAC for senior night on March 5th, and will conclude the season against Seton Hall three days later at the Prudential Center.