Rice cites growing disconnect following fifth loss
During the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s unraveling Wednesday against Princeton, head coach Mike Rice pointed to something he saw that startled him.
But the visual was not something he noticed on the court of the Louis Brown Athletic Center. As the Scarlet Knights returned to the bench at the second-half eight-minute mark, Rice let his players know he saw it, too.
“Look at what we’ve done,” he said in the huddle, pointing to early departing fans. “Look at what individual play does. Look at what lack of pride does.”
The startling image festered with Rice at the postgame podium, where he admitted a disconnect between himself and his players. He repeatedly said his team would not make the same mistakes in the future. He promised to find a way to connect with the roster. And he resolved to improve the state of a fractured relationship.
“I have not connected with this team. I’m going to figure that out,” Rice said. “They’re not listening. I’m not coaching well enough, not making them listen. With young players, sometimes it’s harder. Usually you have some of the older guys self-policing.”
The Knights’ loss against Princeton marked their fourth in six games and second in a row at home, their worst nonconference stretch with Rice at the helm.
Juniors Austin Johnson and Dane Miller, Rutgers’ elder statesmen, each called the run one of the toughest of their careers. There were plenty of theories to go around as to why.
“We think we’re better than we really are,” Miller said.
Freshman point guard Myles Mack pointed to the players’ focus on their own play instead of the team’s as a whole. He also said its rankings, likely the freshman class,’ got to their head. Maybe the team needs to bond more outside the court, he said.
Regardless of the root, Mack called them “possibly fixable.”
“It’s just everybody having something to say,” Mack said. “We have to stop that and just want to get better and learn every day. That’s one of our biggest problems we need to handle.”
Rice said he never experienced the type of disarray he currently bares during Rutgers’ 4-5 start. He likely never envisioned it after landing one of the top recruiting classes in the country, rated No. 24 by Rivals.com after freshman Kadeem Jack enrolled early. But with the preseason acclaim also came baggage.
“Their basketball résumé for the last 18 years have been individually going to make a play,” Rice said. “We’re [playing for each other] in practice, but that’s because it’s halfcourt and you have to make six passes. That’s been one of my strengths as a head coach, to be honest with you. That’s something I’m doing a poor job of.”
Rice’s passion and desire to change Rutgers’ culture likely landed him seven eager freshmen. But with their arrival, there are several enduring questions.
Do Rice’s on-court antics rub the team the wrong way? How long can the Knights continue to play as individuals until wholesale changes occur? How much does the AAU culture and high school success influence Rice’s team?
Miller insists the last question is not at all. “My AAU team, we had to pass the ball to each other,” he said.
The Knights are only nine games into the season, yes. But comparatively they are off-track with last year’s team, which did not enjoy the talent pool Rutgers currently boast. Maybe there is a correlation, Miller said.
“One of the things is we turn it on when we want. We don’t play together at all,” he said. “When we do play together we do a great job. Last year we knew for a fact — media, fans — or it felt like, ‘This is a team with not a lot of players, seven active players playing.’ We played hard every day. We worked hard every day. We came out and competed. Guys on that team knew their roles. We have to be a team to win.”
The Knights “discussed life” and how they will improve following another final-minute loss Wednesday, Rice said. Mack looks forward to the changes, which will occur “in every way,” he said.
By all accounts, they have plenty of work to do, on and off the court. Rice enters uncharted territory with arguably his most talented roster as a head coach. The adversity figures to change him, for better or worse.
“I’ll connect. It’s what I get paid to do,” Rice said. “We’re not going to make the same mistakes. We’re going to play for one another. We’re going to play basketball the way it should be played. If not, then you’re going to sit next to me.”