PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Dwelling on the players who chose to leave the basketball program is a waste of time for new Rutgers coach Mike Rice.
With the season opener set for Nov. 12 at Ivy League favorite Princeton, there is no time for the Scarlet Knights to think about what might have been.
They face the task of rebuilding one of the worst programs in the Big East Conference and they will have to do it without guard Mike Rosario or big man, Greg Echenique, who both transferred out of the program last season.
“Truthfully, I am not really worried about any of that,” sophomore guard Dane Miller said. “Every man needs to do what they think is best for them. I sat down with my mom after Mike and Greg left to blueprint our plans, but I wasn’t going to leave. I felt like I committed here in 11th grade for a reason. We decided that it would be better for me to stay.”
Rosario, the team’s leading scorer last season, transferred to Florida last spring. He was one of 12 players to leave the school since former head coach Fred Hill took over for Gary Waters in 2006.
Impressed by Rice, who led Robert Morris to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances out of the Northeast Conference, Miller recommitted himself and returns as the go-to player on offense.
“I am not going to be the only player teams will have to worry about,” Miller said. “When they try and stop me, we’ll have a counter for it.”
Picked 15th out of 16 teams in the preseason conference coaches poll, the Scarlet Knights have enjoyed only one winning season since reaching the championship game of the NIT under Waters in 2004.
Rutgers has only nine scholarship players and just one, 6-for-7 senior forward Jonathan Mitchell, returning with a double-digit scoring average (11.8).
Rutgers has little size with Mitchell, Miller and New Mexico State transfer Robert Lumpkins each listed at 6-7.
Freshman forward Gilvydas Biruta and sophomore Austin Johnson each check in at 6-8. Lack of depth and experience also is a problem with only five players who saw significant Division I playing time last season.
Mitchell, the only returning player to start all 32 games a year ago, is playing for the third coach of his collegiate career, which began at Florida under Billy Donovan in 2006.
“Any time you make changes, it is obviously difficult at first,” Mitchell said. “We just have to get used to what Coach Rice wants — the intensity and urgency — every day. The faster I can learn and the seniors as a group can learn from him, the quicker we can translate and help the other guys.”
Miller is the most versatile threat in an offense that averaged 67.5 points and had more turnovers (466) that assists (438) last season. He averaged 9.2 points as a freshman, but reached double figures 14 times in 20 Big East games.
“Dane Miller has a lot on his shoulders, to be honest with you,” Rice said. “Early on, there’s no question, he’ll be a focal point. Whether it’s stopping his penetration, slowing him down in transition, keeping him off of the offensive glass whatever it may be.”
With Miller and Mitchell starting in the front court, seniors Mike Coburn and point guard James Beatty return to the backcourt.
Biruta started the Scarlet Knights’ 80-68 exhibition victory over McGill Nov. 1.
Rice, who will receive reinforcements next season in the form of a top 15 recruiting class, named Coburn, Mitchell and Beatty his captains.
“The transition to Coach Rice has not been hard for me because I respect Coach Rice and how hard he works,” Beatty said. “In just the few months he has been here, he’s already brought out more in me than I ever expected. This team deserves to win because I don’t think anyone really knows how hard we work because all they look at is wins and losses. There are certain things you just can’t control, but I think we will surprise a lot of people.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.