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Men's Basketball: Pirates offer Rice time to tinker roster

For a glimpse into the improvements that have occurred under head coach Mike Rice, look no further than Derrick Randall.

The burly, 6-foot-8 sophomore forward arrived in 2011 with only a handful of basketball experience in high school to draw from. Randall was raw, could not handle the ball and never earned Rice’s trust.

But when it mattered most Monday, Rice enlisted Randall’s help against 290-pound Davante Gardner, Marquette’s frontrunner for Big East Sixth Man of the Year.

Gardner took only one shot in 18 minutes.

“If he just focuses on being disciplined, then I feel like he’ll be able to continue to progress defensively and offensively,” said senior forward Austin Johnson on Monday.

For better or worse, Rice will be judged on the success of the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s 2011 recruiting class. His first two seasons are likely a wash, and losing leading scorer Eli Carter for the year will likely afford Rice another season.

Rice’s 2011 class is the only thing he can definitely call his own.

“Go back with me to the first practice they were here and how much they’ve learned,” Rice said Monday.

Rice pointed to sophomore point guard Myles Mack’s development in Rice’s half-court offense earlier in the season as a launching point, along with sophomore forward Kadeem Jack’s rapid emergence.

He will likely do so again when he inevitably meets with Athletic Director Tim Pernetti at the end of the season. It is not the type of defense Rice is used to.

“Emotionally, he really hasn’t really lost like that in a couple years,” Mack said Monday. “I know this is getting to him, too. I know everybody has his back.”

Rice lauded the team’s grit Monday following its 11th loss in 12 games.

He has no doubts it will appear again tonight in the Scarlet Knights’ (13-15, 4-13) season finale at Seton Hall (14-16, 3-14), which has dealt with the same history of Big East ineptitude.

While Big East Tournament position is already set — Rutgers will play at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday against DePaul — Rice still has much to gain.

It is the third-year head coach’s last chance to toy with his rotation before he must win — likely twice — to salvage another difficult season.

“They’ve been up and down,” said Mack, who went undefeated as a senior at St. Anthony (N.J.), of his first two seasons in Piscataway. “We’ve been fighting, but we haven’t been pulling through. I’m still here for these guys, and I still have faith in this season.”

No one has been more of a believer than Rice.

He claps, he prods and he encourages. He yells, he dismisses and he starts up again. He insists his team has improved, but his hurt continues to surface, magnified by an emotional postgame press conference Monday in which Rice paused several times between answers.

“Every single day, they refuse to stop working hard, to stop caring, like a lot of teams do now at this part of the season when you haven’t had the type of success you wanted,” Rice said.

Wins and losses will not do much good when Pernetti inks his end-of-year evaluations, which he lays out with each varsity sport.

Rice, Pernetti’s first significant hiring, must prove his signees are worth salvaging.

But without wins or AAU-turned-assistant-coaches, big-time recruits — recruits who have spurned Rice for greener pastures — will not come. If success is fleeting, it would take a local high school stud with Rutgers heartstrings to change the culture in Piscataway.

Rice understands. It is why he and his staff pore over gyms from Newark to Linden to Piscataway and all stretches of the Mid-Atlantic. It has not been enough, but Rice has not given up.

“There is no wits end,” he said. “There’s fight.”

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

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