Rice spots change in youth
Mike Rice debuted his first full recruiting class as head coach of the Rutgers men’s basketball team last season.
The group ranked in the nation’s top 20, which was rarified air for a Scarlet Knights recruiting class.
But that did not prevent the group from receiving a reality check once it hit its Big East schedule, regarded as one of the most competitive gauntlets in college basketball.
“It was a big wakeup call,” said sophomore guard Jerome Seagears. “We came in thinking it was going to be a piece of pie based off of all the hype. [There is] nothing better in life as a learning experience than actually going through something.”
That learning experience taught them everything
they needed to improve on to turn Rutgers into a Big East contender.
It also gave them a benchmark entering the offseason.
“After you’ve been through it, you know how strong other players are in the Big East, you know how conditioned other players are in the Big East,” Seagears said. “So you know what you want to be and what you need to be to compete as this level.”
Last season left much to
A group of players not used to losing games dropped four more than they won overall and twice as many as they won during conference play. All that did was bring out their resolve to improve.
“They were in the weight room four or five times a week,” said associate head coach David Cox of the team’s offseason work. “They really bought into that. They did a lot of skill development. We focused on their weaknesses from last year as a team and individually.”
But the sophomores’ improvement extends far beyond the physical.
Seagears admits the group is much more knowledgeable about the game than it was last season, and Rice is starting to see that.
“Every single day they’re getting coached better,” he said. “They’re understanding, ‘Coach isn’t yelling at me because he’s mad at me. Coach is yelling at me because I didn’t jump to the ball.’ All the things they didn’t understand, they kind of do now. They’re accepting it and they’re embracing it, to be honest with you.”
While Rice sees steps in the right direction, this group of sophomores — which composes the majority of the roster — still has only one year under its belt.
That may not cut it in the Big East.
“We are competing at a higher level,” Cox said. “We are physically more mature. Fortunately we’re mentally more mature, a little bit more focused and understanding. Is it to the level we need it to be to win the Big East Championship? Absolutely not. But it’s developing. It’s growing tremendously.”
And it needs to grow tremendously. With most of the team made up of sophomores, it remains one of the younger teams in the field.
That means Rutgers’ youth has potentially the largest impact on where the team stands at the end of the season.
“That is the strength and the core of this team,” Cox said. “Those are guys who are going to handle the ball the most. They have to make the most decisions. They have to make shots. They have to feed the post. They are really the core.”
That core has played in 18 Big East games now, so there will be no sneaking up on it this season, something Rice believes is invaluable.
He said it has led to a more focused team to this point in the year.
“They don’t wander as much in practice because they know how important the preparation part of the season really counts,” Rice said. “They understand how hard it is to win a Division-I basketball game, let alone a game against one of our Big East opponents.”
The numbers also
show the importance of second-year players.
Sophomores filled three of the top four spots on the team last season as freshmen in minutes played. The fourth is now-senior Dane Miller.
That means the Knights need them to produce.
“Most of our scoring came from our sophomores last year,” said sophomore guard Eli Carter, “so we have a big weight on our shoulders to keep improving and keep getting better.”
Carter paced the team with 13.8 points per game, while classmate Myles Mack held the second position with 9.8 points per contest.
But even with all of the testimonies from coaches and players, tonight’s season opener against St. Peter’s will truly show where the sophomores have gotten better and where they must still improve.
“I wish I could [say] right now, but I would say we have to be battle-tested in games and during the season,” Seagears said. “It’s a long season. Stuff goes on and stuff happens during the season. I’d definitely say we have to be battle-tested.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.