Rice, Knights endure yet another surprising result

Rutgers head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice stood at the podium for Scarlet Knights Media Day in the preseason, defining the team’s goal of a winning record in Big East play.

But when the young Knights asked, “Why can’t we do even better?” the second-year head coach only scratched his head. They did not know what it was like to face Connecticut or Pittsburgh, he said.

They beat both Big East powers. But Rutgers, the fourth-youngest team nationally, also lost against DePaul and Providence, both in last place when Rutgers played them.

The Knights (12-11) sit at 4-6 in conference play with a matchup in Louisville (17-5, 5-4) awaiting them tomorrow. They remain tied for 10th in the Big East standings with their metropolitan counterparts — Seton Hall and St. John’s.

Beside a pair of wins against top-10 opponents within days of each other, Rice endured many days that made him scratch his head. He knew the obstacles facing him with seven true freshman and no scholarship seniors.

The Knights continue to hover around .500, a likely scenario for a program not used to winning on a consistent basis. They feature a probable Big East All-Rookie Team selection in guard Eli Carter, their leading scorer at 14.1 points per game.

Carter’s backcourt mates, freshmen Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears, continue to develop into Big East-caliber guards.

But other members of Rice’s first full recruiting class, the best in program history, do not boast the same immediate success.

After suffering a foot injury less than a week into practice, Kadeem Jack continues to try to find his way into Rice’s rotation. He played 11 minutes Wednesday against Providence, but he did not score and did not record a rebound.

Rice said he needs to find more minutes for the Rice High School (N.Y.) product, but Jack needs more time to develop — maybe more than initially thought.

Derrick Randall emerged as a starter for Rice during the nonconference season. Rice said he was “more than pleasantly surprised” with Randall’s play, but Randall played only nine minutes against Providence.

He shows an ability to defend in the low post with good position, but Randall’s scoring touch needs work. His deficiencies do not outweigh his upside as a quality Big East defender.

Malick Kone, who Rice said needs to earn his own minutes, and Greg Lewis could benefit from more time observing from the sideline.

Meanwhile, in Jamaica, Queens, another set of highly touted freshmen take the floor for the Red Storm. Headlined by Maurice Harkless, the league’s likely Rookie of the Year, St. John’s defeated DePaul on Wednesday, 87-81, in Chicago.

The Red Storm’s 2011 recruiting class, which finished in the top five according to Rivals.com, features five members in the starting lineup. While head coach Steve Lavin continues to rehab from cancer treatment, his recruiting efforts continue to validate him.

But while St. John’s has a national reputation and Madison Square Garden working in its favor, Rutgers does not.

Lavin benefited from a senior-heavy team in his first season, when the Red Storm made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. Rice did not.

The Johnnies, without the watchful eye of football, can continue to turn their focus to the hardwood. Even without a strong gridiron tradition in Piscataway, football remains king.

Rice said he always believes the Knights can turn the corner and begin to win consistently in the Big East. It might not happen in 2012, but he at least has the pieces in place to do so.