Roster gives Rice chance at flexibility

Big East Media Day

<p>Senior wing Dane Miller headlines a 2012-2013 team that could be the program’s most versatile group in recent memory.</p>

Senior wing Dane Miller headlines a 2012-2013 team that could be the program’s most versatile group in recent memory.

NEW YORK CITY — A punching bag draped with unflattering newspaper clippings still rests inside the Rutgers men’s basketball team locker room after two years. Junior guard Mike Poole said the Scarlet Knights no longer add to it, but still look at it from time to time.

Entering the 2012-2013 season, the Knights no longer need outside motivation.

“Looking at our roster, I think we’re one of the deepest teams in the Big East, one through 12,” Poole said yesterday at Big East Media Day. “The way [head] coach [Mike] Rice plays, everybody’s going to have a chance to prove themselves during the game. Our versatility is going to be crazy because we put different lineups every five minutes.”

The Knights return 10 letterwinners from last season, including all seven members of their 2011 recruiting class. Two more, Kansas State transfer Wally Judge and junior college transfer Vincent Garrett, are also eligible.

The depth gives Rice free rein for the first time since he joined the program from Robert Morris in 2010.

“We can do so much because we have so many different pieces and so many versatile players,” said senior wing Dane Miller, himself a hybrid player. “It’s kind of scary.”

Five frontcourt players give Rutgers its most legitimate post presence in recent memory. The development of three sophomore guards affords it flexibility in the backcourt. And the additions of Judge and Garrett allow it to lay claim to its most athleticism since Rice took over.

“As a general fan base, you maybe want to see it last year,” Rice said. “You wanted to see it five years ago. Now when I go to practice, I see a Big East basketball team.”

Rice inherited a program in 2010 with only seven scholarship players. He translated a short offseason into a string of unheralded transfers and Poole, an under-recruited guard from St. Benedict’s (N.J.) prep.

Assistant coach Jimmy Martelli used to have to practice regularly in five-on-five drills to make ends meet.

“Only people who have been there really every day can see,” Rice said. “We talk about those early days often and kind of laugh about it.”

Big East coaches      picked Rutgers to finish 11th in the conference, the third consecutive season the Knights earned a bottom-third ranking under Rice.

Louisville, No. 2 nationally in the first coaches’ poll released yesterday, was a unanimous selection for No. 1 overall in the conference.

“Where are you going to pick us — in the top six?” Rice said. “This team hasn’t done it. Until you do it … prognosticators will pick us higher because we haven’t done it. It is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

For Rutgers to scratch the surface of the AP top 25 this season, it will have to do so with its conference schedule. The Knights’ nonconference slate features only one team that made the 2011 NCAA Tournament in Iona. Another, Ole Miss, lost in the first round of the NIT.

Rutgers hosted then-No. 10 Florida last year at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, and formerly had a series with North Carolina, culminating with a 2010 meeting at Madison Square Garden.

“We have to use those games for confidence, motivation … because we’re running into a truck in the first conference game [Jan. 2 at Syracuse],” Miller said. “We have to use that to build us up.”

The third season for most coaches often demands signs of improvement. Rice already has a retooled roster, but another 8-5 non-conference record likely will not suffice for him.

“If we can now take care of our home court and become a more mature team, I think this team will need a shot of confidence,” Rice said. “This program, this fan base, these alumni will need some confidence.”

Rutgers scrimmages         at Harvard on Sunday, followed by an exhibition Nov. 4 at the RAC with Holy Family.

For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.

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