’Nova exposes lack of scorers
VILLANOVA, Pa. — A curious thing happened on a crisp February evening at the Pavilion on the way to a rebound: Mike Rice urged Myles Mack, his transition-prone point guard, to slow down. The head coach spent most of the season urging his plodding offense to run, to create a quickened tempo at any cost.
But the loss of Eli Carter, the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s leading scorer, to a fractured fibula Feb. 16 forced Rice to reevaluate his options. It is part of a conscious decision from Rice to maximize the sum of his parts, which fell last night, 71-63.
“Without Eli, it’s a little bit different,” said Rice, whose team dropped its eighth decision in nine games.
The Knights (13-12, 4-10) picked their spots against Villanova, namely through Mack, who scored 14 straight first-half points. The 5-foot-9 Mack, who scored 24 points on 7-for-11 shooting, left little doubt as to who would run this new-look offense.
“We just thought Mack would really step up,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “He’s just a really tough cover because he’s hard to guard one-on-one. You put your smallest guy on him. Whoever you bring to double him, he just blows by that guy.”
Rice had long since placed the trust of his motion offense in Mack’s hands, and with good reason. Mack is the heart of Rutgers’ transition game. He operates with cunning against press defense, and through tutelage at Paterson Catholic and St. Anthony — is well groomed.
But without Carter, who figured heavily into each possession, Mack could see his ball-handling increase.
“I don’t think you’re going to see [alternatives],” Rice said. “You have [sophomore points guard] Jerome [Seagears] and [Mack].”
40 minutes is still too small a sample size to evaluate life without Carter.
But if Villanova’s (17-10, 8-6) template is any indication, Rice’s creativity may need to extend to the team’s ball-handlers. The Wildcats forced eight second-half turnovers, primarily through full-court traps, and scored 14 points.
Rice said the Knights must work on passing out of the press rather than putting their heads down and dribbling through it.
Mack and Seagears combined for seven of Rutgers’ 13 turnovers. But at one point in the second half, Rice resigned himself to his two point guards against Villanova’s three-man frontcourt press.
The Knights’ three other players took position on the wings.
“I have to get them out more,” Rice said of Mack and Seagears, who played a combined 71 minutes. “I have to get both of them a rest so they can finish better. Jerome’s decisions were fatigued.”
Rice invests heavily into Mack and Seagears, the focal points of his offensive vision. But with both starting, questions swirl about who will spell them.
Senior wing Dane Miller could be a candidate.
Miller has not started since Jan. 30, and his point-forward mentality could serve Rutgers well in not overworking its two biggest backcourt assets. Miller did not take a shot in 26 minutes, recorded one rebound and largely floated through Rutgers’ offense.
Rice was noncommittal.
“We have to figure out what do with Dane right now,” Rice said. “Certainly with the numbers … he has to step up. We need more.”
To his credit, Miller wasted little time containing Villanova’s offensive nucleus, point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, in the first half.
Arcidiacono, the poster child in consecutive upset victories against Syracuse and Louisville, had converted two 3-pointers in nearly as many minutes to begin the game. But he managed only two shot attempts — both misses — in 13 first-half minutes that followed with Miller on his trail.
Arcidiacono used screens as default options against Miller’s springy 6-foot-6 frame, but little worked.
Only three of Arcidiacono’s 14 points came with Miller as a primary defender.
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.