Head coach Mike Rice enters his second season “On the Banks” on the heels of a productive 2010-11 campaign and with a positive energy surrounding the program. The Scarlet Knights return seven letterwinners, including two starters and welcome seven highly-touted newcomers into the fold for 2011-12.
In Rice’s first year at the helm, Rutgers defeated ACC foe Miami and SEC-member Auburn during the non-conference schedule in the midst of a 9-2 start. It signaled the first time in 11 years RU had defeated teams from multiple “Big Six/BCS” leagues in the regular season. During the BIG EAST portion, the Scarlet Knights downed No. 9-ranked Villanova in one of college basketball’s most thrilling finishes and won two of three against rival Seton Hall. An overtime victory against the Pirates at Madison Square Garden marked RU’s first BIG EAST tournament win since 2006. Rutgers augmented this on-court success by welcoming the highest-rated recruiting class in school history. The class has been ranked in the top 15 nationally by multiple outlets and features several players from the New York metro area.
As a result, the Rutgers fan base is optimistic about the future of an RU program that last earned an NCAA tournament bid in 1991 and has never posted a winning league record in 16 seasons of BIG EAST Conference play.
A necessary step to reversing these former misfortunes is compiling a roster capable of excelling at the highest level, a level also referred to as the BIG EAST. After competing with just nine scholarship players in 2010-11, the Scarlet Knights have the full allotment of scholarship competitors for 2011-12.
“We finally have a full roster,” said Rice. “We have added depth and competition. That’s always a positive because when there is competition for playing time, that means guys are playing hard every single drill and every single possession in practice. That stands out to me when I look at the roster. The other thing I see is the added height and size. We may actually look like a BIG EAST team now.”
The caveat is youth. Although the roster is laden with potential, it features seven young men yet to step on the collegiate hardwood. The team is also without a scholarship senior and must replace a trio of influential starting seniors from the 2010-11 campaign.
“I had a team with six freshmen at Robert Morris in my third year, but we had four seniors to balance it out,” said Rice. “Having so many freshmen is definitely a challenge. You have the maturity issues. Not having seniors who have been in the system for four years is also very challenging. We will have to be patient early on, but the level of demand and what we expect can’t ever lessen.
“I will be able to have more options coming off the bench. I played some of my guys too long last year. That affected us – maybe not in the first 30 minutes, but definitely the last ten minutes and how hard we were able to defend. We are going to keep the same defensive mentality and mindset, but hopefully be a fresher team at the end of the game.”
With the multitude of fresh faces in Piscataway, leadership will be essential. The active roster has two scholarship juniors and three scholarships sophomores, all of which saw significant action last season.
“We are looking for some of the returning players to step up. They certainly will have an advantage because they know the drills and they know what’s expected of them. But in the end, especially with my point guards, I know that they are freshmen. They have to play older than their years and be more mature and hopefully they can do that.”
Rutgers had the good fortunate of welcoming all of its newcomers to campus this summer, where they acclimated to the collegiate classroom and weight room. They also competed together on a team in an NCAA sanctioned summer league.
“I think this summer has been a positive step forward, especially from the standpoint of getting bigger and stronger and understanding the physical challenges of the BIG EAST,” said Rice. “As freshmen, the biggest things they don’t understand are how big and strong everyone is and the urgency that goes into BIG EAST play. We can at least attack one of those things and I think they are improving their strength and conditioning this summer.”
Rutgers will hold its first official practice on October 14. Although the date is still a few months away, Rice already has an agenda for the practice plan.
“The first thing we are going to do is mental toughness,” said Rice. “The first week or two will be learning to handle adversity. This team has the athletes, it has skill, but it doesn’t have that much experience. What I think we lack is the mental toughness to be successful in the BIG EAST. So I’ll throw some different things at them and we will see where they come out.”
The Rutgers backcourt is a very talented albeit youthful group, especially at the point guard position. A preliminary summer depth chart reveals a pair of true freshmen, Saint Anthony graduate Myles Mack (Paterson, N.J.) and D.C. Assault AAU program product Jerome Seagears (Silver Spring, Md.), poised to have the handle. Mack was the only player to start every game this past season under Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame head coach Bob Hurley in the Friars’ undefeated, national championship campaign. He earned First Team All-America honors from both ESPN and Rise/2K Sports and Second Team All-America accolades from USA Today. Seagears, rated as the country’s No. 89 overall prospect by Scout.com, was a Jordan Brand Classic East Region All-Star after averaging 32.0 points and 9.0 assists per game at Flora MacDonald Academy (N.C.).
“Myles is someone who has had tremendous success in high school and is so gifted offensively, especially in his ability to create off the bounce,” said Rice. “He has the whole package offensively. Translating that from high school is the next step. I really like his demeanor on the court. He has poise, whether it be up 20 points, down 20 points or in overtime.
“Jerome is one of our best athletes. He has tremendous physical tools and I’m really counting on him to be one of our better defensive players on the ball. He excels in an up-tempo game and I’ll look for him to attack on misses or makes. He is going to be someone to create for us.”
Another highly-touted rookie in the mix is Eli Carter (Willingboro, N.J.). A 2010 graduate of Saint Anthony, he prepped at Brewster Academy in 2010-11, where he was ranked as the nation’s 114th overall prospect and No. 32 shooting guard by Rivals. Carter has the ability to contribute at the one or the two.
“Eli Carter is a combo guard who can do a whole lot with the basketball,” said Rice. “Like Myles and Jerome, he is dangerous because he can create his own shot at any time. We didn’t have that last year. Eli is somebody who could not only hit his shot, but can make shots for others because his ability to knock down threes, get in the lane, take contact and still finish. He will always look to create shots for others.”
A pair of experienced sophomores, Mike Poole (Rosedale, N.Y.) and Austin Carroll (Bedford, Mass.) will compete at shooting guard. Poole, who will often play the wing, turned heads with his confident play as a true freshman last season when he averaged 19.0 minutes per contest. Carroll’s strength is as a spot up shooter. He saw action in 25 games, missing seven BIG EAST contests after arthroscopic knee surgery, and averaged 10.6 minutes off the bench.
“We will slide Mike over a little to the two because he may be our most consistent jump shooter,” said Rice. “He is certainly somebody who attacked his weakness over the summer and that’s adding more strength and weight to his body frame. His ball handling wasn’t as good as it should have been coming out of high school, and he’s attacked that. He is someone the younger guys can look up to because he’s been here.
“Austin is another returning perimeter player who attacks and puts in positive minutes. Like Mike, he lacked consistency. One minute on the floor he was being applauded and I was pulling him to the bench the next. He has been hampered by injury, but has continued to battle. His strengths are court awareness and his ability to stretch the defense and make outside shots.”
Mike Kuhn (Oceanport, N.J.) is a three-year letterwinner and the lone senior on the roster. A product of Christian Brothers Academy, where he was coached by former Rutgers star Geoff Billet, Kuhn saw action in nine games last year and has twice been cited as the team’s top scholar-athlete. He will provide depth at both guard positions and will be instrumental on the scout team.
The wing will feature Dane Miller (Rochester, N.Y.), a 2009-10 BIG EAST All-Rookie selection, and freshman Malick Kone (Conakry, Guinea). A crafty scorer who plays at the rim, Miller showed significant improvement on the defensive side in 2010-11, while averaging 9.2 points-per-game. An international student and product of the D.C. Assault AAU program, Kone arrived as the No. 145-rated overall recruit by Hoop Scoop and the No. 53-ranked small forward prospect by ESPN.com.
“Dane has taken tremendous steps forward, especially on the defense side of the ball,” said Rice. “His team defense and individual defense has improved more than any player. He still has a way to go, but he really bought into the system, especially on the defensive side. This year, I look for him to make a jump offensively. He is doing the necessary things to improve his game, especially his outside shot, his mid-range game and his pull ups. Hopefully, he will be more balanced this year than last year.
“Malick has tremendous upside. He hasn’t been playing organized basketball for that long. I look for him to grow over the year. He will give us everything he has every time he steps on the floor.”
When a spectator takes up residence at the Rutgers Athletic Center for his initial viewing of the Scarlet Knights, chances are the initial impression will be provided by the frontcourt. Undersized in recent years, the Scarlet Knights have five players on the active roster listed at 6-8 or above. Not only will this growth spurt provide dividends on game nights, but also in the preceding preparations and practices.
Perhaps the most notable member of the frontcourt is sophomore forward Gilvydas Biruta (Jonava, Lithuania). A 2010-11 BIG EAST Conference All-Rookie selection, he started 31 of 32 games and was first among all BIG EAST freshmen in rebounding, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. An aggressive player who competed this summer at the 2011 FIBA U20 European Championships in Spain, he also excelled in the classroom. Biruta posted a 3.57 cumulative grade point average to earn BIG EAST All-Academic honors.
“After playing with his back to the basket last year, Gilvydas has to transition 85 percent of his offensive game to facing the hoop,” said Rice. “Hopefully, he has a nice combination of points in the paint and will also be able to step up and knock down a perimeter jumper. If Gilvydas is able to take the next step, he is going to have a very good year for us.”
The most anticipated debut in the front court belongs to Rice High School product Kadeem Jack (Queens, N.Y.), who enrolled at Rutgers mid-year last season and was redshirted. Expected to contribute at the four with the potential for the five as well, he competed this summer in New York’s highly competitive Dyckman outdoor summer league. When the Scarlet Knights inked Jack to his letter of intent, he was rated as the nation’s No. 33 overall prospect by Rivals.
“Kadeem can score inside and out,” said Rice. “He has tremendous shot blocking ability, offensive rebounding skills and a great jump shot. He’s probably one of the two best athletes on our team. We didn’t rebound enough last year, especially on the offense side. With his physical tools, it will help us immediately.”
The truest center on the roster is junior Austin Johnson (Elkins Park, Pa.). A skilled big man noted as a great passer out of the post, he has assumed a leadership role this summer and has continually made strides in the weight room. Last season, he averaged 4.5 points in 16.3 minutes off the bench and shot a team-best .534 (62-for-116) from the floor.
“Austin can do a lot of different things on the floor,” said Rice. “Judging from the summer leagues, it appears he has made the biggest jump. He has to establish the confidence and toughness to succeed on this level, because he has all the tools. Austin has great footwork, size, strength and explosiveness. If he believes he can do it, I think he’s going to have a tremendous year and may be one of the biggest surprises.”
Freshmen Derrick Randall (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Greg Lewis (Randallstown, Md.) are legitimate BIG EAST caliber big men, whose contributions will most assuredly grow during the course of the season. Randall is rated as the No. 119 overall prospect nationally by Hoop Scoop and is the country’s No. 26 power forward prospect by both by Scout.com and ESPN.com. Lewis is ranked as the nation’s No. 127 overall prospect by Hoop Scoop and No. 139 overall recruit by Rivals.
“Derrick is physically ready since day one,” said Rice. “That said, what he doesn’t know is going to be a factor. I expect him to have early foul trouble. He has size and strength, it’s just a matter of knowing when to use it and when not to. Derrick runs the floor tremendously, is a great defensive rebounder and a good shot blocker. He has to learn how to finish through contact and how to use his frame to his advantage.
“Greg is another tremendous talent. He has to understand how to use his athleticism and strengths to be successful. Both Derrick and Greg have a willingness to create contact and that is something that we didn’t have last year. Last season, we were always being hit first. This season, we are going to be able to initiate contact.”
Another key to the frontcourt is transfer forward Wally Judge (Washington, D.C). A McDonald’s High School All-American who played the past two seasons at Kansas State, he will participate in all team activities, but will not compete in games in 2011-12 under NCAA transfer guidelines. A big time athlete who can put the ball on the floor and also shoot it from 15 to 17 feet, he has the ability to guard three positions.
“Wally is going to hopefully improve every day and help us daily in practice because of his size, strength and his natural physical abilities,” said Rice. “I’m not sure what Wally does outstanding yet. We need to figure that out and translate all his physical tools into one particular item that he does great on the floor. That’s something hopefully we could figure out this year.”