Rutgers improves strength, mentality
It was not a secret last season that the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s biggest weaknesses were youth and inexperience.
They contributed to the Scarlet Knights’ 14-18 record and to them winning only a third of their Big East Games
“Having such a young team with no seniors really to help guide them, it was truly an interesting year,” said head coach Mike Rice. “We certainly had our growing pains. But to think of that as all being negative is to sell our experience last year short.”
This time around, Rice believes the team has used its experience last season to turn its youth into an advantage.
He did not lose a single player to graduation, and every one of them has at least a year of college basketball experience.
But that is not the only place the Knights have taken a step forward.
“I know we’re stronger. I know we look different,” he said. “I know we have bigger and better depth. I know that this team is closer because they understand they need each other more than they did last year. Those are the strengths of this program right now.”
The team, which was composed mostly of freshmen last year, now understands the game of Division-I college basketball better, Rice said.
He said that shows up in practice, especially with the backcourt.
“You look at the experience that [the guards] have, some of the success they’ve had. I like that,” Rice said. “I like that they now, when I tell them, ‘You know how hard it is to win a Divison-I game,’ they don’t laugh at me when I say that. They respond and they actually understand how hard it is.”
But the backcourt is not the only area in which the team has a new look.
Forward Gilvydas Biruta transferred to Rhode Island in the offseason, rejoining his high school coach, Dan Hurley.
Even though the Knights lost one forward, they gained another.
Junior forward Wally Judge transferred from Kansas State and had to sit out last season per NCAA rules.
He was part of the Wildcats’ 2010 team that made it to the Elite Eight. Judge’s new
team has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament in more than 20 years.
“[Judge] understands what it takes to get [to the tournament],” said sophomore guard Jerome Seagears. “He knows what it is to bring it to practice every single day, and that’s what he does on a daily basis.”
Judge makes his much-anticipated Rutgers debut tonight against St. Peter’s.
But he is not the only forward that will play a larger role.
Getting bigs more involved has become a central focus to the Rutgers offense this season.
Judge and senior forward Austin Johnson have led the charge in shaping up the frontcourt.
“To have two veterans who know the game and have been through the battles and been through the wars, and then to have these three younger guys … it just goes a long way,” said associate head coach David Cox.
Added strength is also an asset Rice believes will go a long way this season.
The team spent a great deal of time in the weight room this offseason, which Rice said will come in handy, especially during the conference season.
He said the team will no longer get knocked out of driving lanes and overpowered by stronger teams. He hopes a stronger group will not all allow that to happen.
Regardless of how different the team looks from last season’s group, Rice said the overall goal is no different.
“I want to do the same thing I always want to do,” he said. “I want to win. Whether it’s the fifth-youngest team in the country or whether it’s next year when we have almost all upperclassmen, that never changes.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Joey Gregory on Twitter @JGregoryTargum.