RU?backcourt endures trials in league play
As Mike Rice looks around the Big East Conference, he notices teams on the left side of the board — the top eight in the standings on a board in the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s locker room. The second-year head coach flashes back to former Connecticut point guard Kemba Walker and now to Husky ball-handler Shabazz Napier.
He recognized he ought to have someone in the backcourt like them, but he had to wait.
“Last year, we didn’t have anybody who could create,” Rice said. “Those guys are the ones who, at the end of the shot clock, at the end of a game, they make things happen. … Because that’s what wins in the Big East — guys who can create for themselves and others.”
Rice tinkered with his starting point guard a year ago out of necessity. Now-departed James Beatty resumed the ball-handling role for Rice since only Mike Coburn, who also since graduated, worked better off the ball.
Guard Mike Poole was a freshman, and the cupboard behind him was bare.
Rice made sure to stock the pantry in Year 2. It only happens to contain raw material.
“It’s like baptism by fire,” said junior forward Austin Johnson of the Scarlet Knights’ three freshmen guards. “You get thrown in there, and you’re going up against some of the best guards in the country in the Big East. They’ve had to learn on the fly.”
Freshman point guard Jerome Seagears learned by maintaining his poise. He often did so the hard way. Rookie backcourt mates Eli Carter and Myles Mack underwent the same transition.
The results continue to perplex Rice.
“Every home game is as big as it comes now,” Rice said. “Especially when you don’t know after this game, ‘Are they sad? Are they feeling sorry for themselves? Is their energy still going to be there since they didn’t get to the left side of the board?’ You never know with this team.”
Nearly 800 miles away, Oliver Purnell lives Rice’s struggle. The second-year head coach at DePaul boasts a pair of marquee pieces in sophomores Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young, but little else.
The Blue Demons he inherited after leaving Clemson little resembled parts of a Big East team. Sure, Melvin was the conference’s 2011 Rookie of the Year, and Young earned All-Big East Rookie Team honors.
But the Knights also placed a pair of players on the rookie team in as many years — and likely another this year if Carter continues to score 13.7 points per game. They know as well as any how little rookie prowess leads to conference success.
But Johnson sees DePaul turning the corner, however long it continues to take.
“They’re much improved from a talent perspective,” he said. “Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin are really good players. They’re playing with a passion and toughness this year. They’ve been underdogs like us.”
Young and Seagears nearly played for the same AAU program, Team Takeover in North Carolina, but Seagears moved on to D.C. Assault. The pair of Beltway AAU powerhouses nearly met up at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., but the matchup fell through.
Seagears said Young can become one of the top players to come from Baltimore. He also said the Knights’ young backcourt faintly resembles the one that opened the season.
“I would say we’re doing a very good job right now,” he said. “It can always get better, but I think right now as freshmen we’re doing a good job. By the time we get later in the season, nobody’s going to want to play us.”
Seagears will know tonight, when Rutgers (11-9, 3-4) hosts DePaul (10-9, 1-6) at the Louis Brown Athletic Center. The Blue Demons’ pressure defense, based around the full-court press, forces more than 17 turnovers per game.
Purnell’s up-and-down system is a major reason DePaul ranks fourth in the Big East in scoring. Part of it is scoring in transition. Another is a young roster used to playing up-tempo.
“It makes for very interesting, up-tempo basketball,” Rice said. “His young guys are improving. He’s inconsistent … because he’s dealing with a young team.”
Rice knows more than most.