Rice faces new challenge at Providence

The Rutgers men’s basketball team has a chance tonight at Providence to return to .500 in Big East play for the third time this season.

Each time it reached the mark produced the Scarlet Knights’ best start in the conference since the 2003-04 season. But they failed each time to capitalize afterward.

So head coach Mike Rice must adjust his approach — again.

“Thinking about that with this team, we’ve tried that, and it didn’t exactly work,” Rice said. “We’re trying to focus on improving every day, not making the same mistakes and listening — small things. The big picture — doing things that have never been done before — I don’t know if that stuff works with this team.”

The Knights (12-10, 4-5) own wins against Cincinnati, a program they boasted little success against, and Notre Dame, a team they last beat in 2010.

They conquered then-top-10 Connecticut, which they had not accomplished in their past 10 tries. Rutgers also outlasted Pittsburgh on the road, where visiting teams rarely leave feeling self-assured.

The Knights also lay claim to a 2-point loss to South Florida and a defeat against Big East cellar dweller DePaul.

“Against Florida they didn’t say a word to each other either, and they came out and played with tremendous intensity and passion,” Rice said. “Right now, that’s what’s interesting about this team. You yell at them — one time it works, one time they shut down.”

Even in a down year, the Big East is as difficult a conference to navigate as any in the nation. With only four teams ranked in the Top 25 and nine separated by two games, it gets even murkier to predict.

But it is also what makes the league enticing.

“That’s why I came to the Big East. I knew everybody was big,” said freshman forward Derrick Randall, “and I can play against them.”

Randall and the Knights proved it in top-10 wins against the Gators and Huskies and even in a 2-point loss to then-No. 10 Georgetown.

But they also showed the capability for a letdown, evidenced by their 11-point lead collapsing against the Blue Demons.

They next visit the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, where last-place Providence (12-10, 1-8) awaits them. The Friars have a first-year head coach, young players and a recent history of failure.

Rice knows the scenario.

“There’s a level of frustration when you have seven freshmen with no seniors anyway,” he said. “If we could just focus a bit more on some of our weaknesses, there is a positive to be had. There are some things we can do that no one thought we could do, so there is frustration.”

No one summarizes Rice’s feelings more than Dane Miller. The junior wing recorded his third double-double Saturday in the last six games and ninth for his career.

He nabbed nine first-half rebounds against Cincinnati and got his teammates involved. But he does so at times at the expense of his own offense. Miller is fifth on the team with 6.4 points per game.

“I don’t know. Sometimes I sit back and let other people go out and get a spark,” Miller said. “I’m not a selfish person, so I just pick my spots. If it happens, it happens. Offensively, I’ve never been a selfish kid.”

At times, Rice needs him to be. The message is always the same, except for the delivery.

He tried stressing the historical importance of wins. He clapped and stayed calm. And at the request of a team manager, he created a new team mantra.

Rice continues to keep his options open.

“It’s just what you have to do, I guess,” he said, “with this team.”