Head coach Mike Rice enters his third season “On the Banks” intent on furthering the progress achieved during his initial two campaigns. The Scarlet Knights had many notable accomplishments last season with the nation’s fifth-youngest roster on the court. As a result, the team heads into 2012-13 with a measure of experience and with 10 returning letterwinners on the roster, including nine with starting experience.
“The old saying ‘the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores’ is true,” said Rice. “Last year, we showed what everyone who follows college basketball already knows. Freshmen are inconsistent. They now know what they didn’t know coming in. They’re now attacking their weaknesses and developing a greater understanding of what it takes to be successful.”
Despite having seven freshmen on a roster that did not feature a scholarship senior last season, the Scarlet Knights boasted several notable performances. Of the five youngest teams in the country, RU had the best winning percentage while playing a schedule in which twenty of 31 regular season games (65 percent) were against teams that received postseason bids. Rutgers earned its most BIG EAST Conference victories since 2005-06 and was 3-4 against teams that concluded the season ranked in the RPI top 35.
The Scarlet Knights were especially tough to beat at the RAC, where they defeated a pair of top 10 teams. Rutgers downed No. 10 Florida 85-83 in double overtime and defeated No. 8 Connecticut 67-60. It marked only the second time in program history that the Scarlet Knights had downed a pair of top 10 foes in the same season. The win over the Huskies signaled the only time that Rutgers has downed a defending national champion.
To build off the positives established last season, RU needs to mature and become more consistent. Having senior leadership in Dane Miller (Rochester, N.Y.) and Austin Johnson (Elkins Park, Pa.) to go along with three scholarship juniors and seven scholarship sophomores is key. In addition to the players competing in an NCAA sanctioned league and working-out in the weight room together this summer, the process has been aided by a rule change which allows coaches to instruct players on the court.
“This rule change is significant,” said Rice. “It provides an opportunity to better develop the players as individuals and to create team chemistry. They also have more time to understand their roles. Some things just occur naturally as you spend more time with your players, and this aids that process.”
As far as style of play, the formula remains the same. Under Rice, the Scarlet Knights will continue to be an attacking team with an aggressive approach.
“That’s our mentality,” said Rice. “With a year under their belts, our sophomores are going to understand how to attack with their teammates rather than just how to attack as individuals. How to use one another, how to play for one another, is a big part of becoming a better team.
“There will be more of a balance, inside to outside. We all know the accomplishments some of our freshmen guards had last year. Now I hope to add some balance-scoring in the paint, getting more points off free throws and second chance points. When you look at this team you see a balanced, diverse team that hopefully can score in different ways.”
Sophomores Eli Carter (Paterson, N.J.), Myles Mack (Paterson, N.J.), and Jerome Seagears (Silver Spring, Md.) will play prominent roles in the team’s future. The trio combined to start 76 games as freshmen, with each averaging more than 25 minutes per contest. Not only did they make an impact in Scarlet, but also among the BIG EAST leaders. Carter ranked fourth in scoring and third in three-point field goal percentage (.353) among league rookies. Mack was fourth in free throw percentage (.788), fifth in three-point field goal percentage (.338) and fifth in steals (1.4) among BIG EAST freshmen. Seagears boasted a 1.58 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“We don’t really have one’s and two’s, we have guards and wings,” said Rice. “It really doesn’t matter in our system because all three of them can shoot, while creating for themselves and for others. Mike Poole (Rosedale, N.Y.), because of his improved ball handling, becomes one of those guards. He wasn’t one in his first two years, but he has done a tremendous job of making that a strength.”
Carter averaged a team-best 13.8 points-per-game, including 14.0 in the BIG EAST, and was named to the 2011-12 All-Metropolitan Men’s Basketball Team. He was one of just three freshmen cited on the All-Met squads. The Garden State native scored in double-figures 25 times and averaged 16.6 points-per-contest against nationally ranked teams.
Poole hit double-figures seven times in a reserve role and shot 77.8 percent from the free throw line.
On the wing, the Scarlet Knights feature the dynamic Miller, sophomore Malick Kone (Conakry, Guinea) and highly touted junior college transfer Vincent Garrett (Chicago, Ill.).
A former BIG EAST All-Rookie selection, Miller shot 50 percent (97-194) from the field and had seven double-doubles as a junior. He ranked fourth in the BIG EAST in blocks (1.6), 11th in field goal percentage and 14th in rebounding (6.6). Miller excelled in wins over metro foes. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds in a 77-72 OT win at Seton Hall and was named to the BIG EAST Honor Roll after a 10 point, 10 rebound showing in the 61-58 win over St. John’s.
Kone saw key in action in the first seven games, but was sidelined in mid-season due to arthroscopic knee surgery. In total, he competed in 16 games, shooting 47.8 percent (21-44) from the field.
Garrett arrived on campus in July. A scoring wing that averaged 16 points and six rebounds per game as a sophomore at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, he will compete as a junior for the Scarlet Knights in 2012-13.
“The experience of going through last season is going to pay dividends in our backcourt,” said Rice. “Learning that A, I’m not invincible and B, at times I can do it, is significant. They have the confidence, the understanding and experience. When you add a Vincent Garrett to the wings with Dane and Malick and combine that with what Eli Carter did on a daily basis along with Mike Poole, Jerome and Myles. You’re talking about a deep and talented backcourt that doesn’t have many excuses. We’ve been through the wars and we understand what we didn’t know. It’s a group that’s talented enough to help us win some ballgames.”
The Rutgers frontcourt features four returning letterwinners, including three sophomores, and welcomes redshirt junior Wally Judge (Washington, D.C.), a former McDonald’s All-American, to the mix. It’s a very talented group that achieved some success last year, but also struggled at times learning to adapt to the rigors of BIG EAST play.
“They have all done a tremendous job in the weight room putting the necessary mass on their bodies,” said Rice. “That was a big key. They had the athleticism and maybe even the motor last season, but in this league frontcourt freshmen struggle even more than the backcourt. It’s almost a different game in the paint from what it was in high school. The physicality, the balance, the strength are significantly elevated. They now understand what they didn’t know and have the bodies to succeed.”
The most experienced member of the frontcourt is Johnson, who has appeared in 95 career games. He started 14 games last season, but proved most effective off the bench, shooting 55 percent in a reserve role.
Sophomores Derrick Randall (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Kadeem Jack (Queens, N.Y.) and Greg Lewis (Randallstown, Md.) all played meaningful minutes, with each performing in a starting role. Randall saw the most extensive action, earning 10 starts while playing in 31 games. He averaged 11.3 minutes and led all BIG EAST rookies in field goal percentage (.561). Jack’s much-anticipated debut was sidelined by a preseason foot injury that caused him to miss the initial 11 non-conference games. As a result, his acclimation took place during the rugged BIG EAST schedule. He made one start, averaging 8.3 minutes in 18 contests. Lewis steadily progressed and earned his first career start in the BIG EAST Championship. He averaged 5.9 minutes in 18 contests.
Judge participated in all team activities in 2011-12, but did not compete in games under NCAA transfer guidelines. The No. 15-ranked overall player nationally by ESPN in 2009, he will have two seasons of eligibility remaining to compete “On the Banks.”
“When you add a Wally Judge, who is so physically gifted, I think that just helps everyone on down the line,” said Rice. “Whether it’s rebounding, defending or scoring in the paint, he’s certainly somebody who has used his year in residence very wisely. He’s attacked a lot of his weaknesses.”
The complete 2012-13 schedule is still to be announced, but BIG EAST match-ups for the upcoming campaign have already been determined. Rutgers will play Cincinnati, Georgetown, St. John’s and Seton Hall twice as part of an 18-game slate the league. The Bearcats, Hoyas, Red Storm, Pirates, Louisville, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Providence and USF all visit the RAC this winter. The Scarlet Knights’ conference road opponents are Cincinnati, Connecticut, DePaul, Georgetown, Notre Dame, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Syracuse and Villanova.
“It’s the BIG EAST,” said Rice. “You are going to face tremendous competition, game in and game out. As always, I look forward to being more successful in the BIG EAST. We went up in victories from year one to year two and I want to make another jump in year three. We expect that jump.”