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Rice takes extra steps with freshmen

<p>Freshman point guard Myles Mack drives to the basket Wednesday at Marquette.</p>

Freshman point guard Myles Mack drives to the basket Wednesday at Marquette.

Jerome Seagears entered Rutgers head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice’s office two and a half weeks ago, seeking answers to his lingering questions

“What am I doing wrong?” Seagears said to Rice. “I thought I was going to be better. I thought I was going to be good here.”

So Rice took the freshmen point guard through the Big East’s top 15 ball handlers in the last decade, dissecting their first seasons in arguably the nation’s top conference.

Some of the results, Rice said, were surprising.

“You’d be shocked at some of the numbers they had — the shooting percentages and the turnovers,” he said yesterday on the Big East conference call. “Some were better and some were worse. And [Seagears] was like, ‘Wow.’”

Rice said Seagears had his best game as a Scarlet Knight on Wednesday, when Seagears scored 11 of the Knights’ first 25 points at No. 10 Marquette. But there is no surprise it occurred 28 games into the season.

Rice hates the word, but his second year in Piscataway has been a process. As wing Malick Kone rebounded from a nagging knee injury Wednesday, six freshmen saw at least 11 minutes.

His three rookie guards, Seagears included, turned the ball over a combined 11 times. And all the while, Rice watched as Marquette — the type of team he says Rutgers aspires to be one day — ran up and down the court.

“You go into the Big East, you try to tell them over the summer, ‘Lift more, get stronger, take more shots, be stronger with the basketball.’ Now,” Rice said, “my freshmen understand what it takes to be successful in this league.”

Jordan Theodore likely grasps the difference now. Seton Hall’s senior point guard is on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The Pirates almost did when he was a freshman, but instead they settled for the NIT.

Theodore has a chance to strengthen Seton Hall’s (19-9, 8-8) case tomorrow, when the Knights travel to the Prudential Center in Newark to close the in-state rivalry.

Rice’s players likely will not need extra incentive. Rice calls it a “Rutgers-Seton Hall thing.” But he insists watching two other Metropolitan programs seal NCAA berths does not add extra juice.

“I don’t think I need any extra motivation to turn this program around,” Rice said. “It’s just what I came here to do with seven scholarship players — changing the mentality last year. You had to almost completely do it again the following year. We look at St. John’s last year and maybe Seton Hall this year with a little bit of envy.”

Rice said Rutgers (12-16, 4-11) will stamp its first NCAA selection since 1991 one day.

He had to scrap through heaps last season to fill his freshman class. He dealt with little winning tradition to draw upon. And Rice inherited three upperclassmen short on physical tools but with Big East experience.

“I handled my point guards last year completely different than I handle these two,” Rice said. “You can get after senior point guards. You call them soft, and they’re going to rip your head off and rip your opponent’s head off. You don’t do that with freshmen point guards.”

So Rice changed his approach. He explains and motivates now. It is a different way of teaching, Rice said, but one that forced his hand.

He re-evaluated his methods about two and a half months ago, he said, stressing patience and positivity. So the process continues, with moving parts and several re-toolings.

“Patience isn’t one of my strong suits, as you know,” Rice said. “I see improvement. As long as I see improvement, I’m going to stay the course and do what I think is best for the program.”

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