PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — The last time Rutgers was a player in its conference, Syracuse transfers Keith Hughes and Earl Duncan helped the Scarlet Knights win 11 of their final 12 conference games to finish 14-4 in the Atlantic 10 en route to the NCAA tournament.
That was 20 years ago.
Rutgers hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since. It has also not had a winning conference record since. And only five winning seasons in the past two decades.
Coach Mike Rice expects all that to change this season.
That’s what happened at his first head coaching job in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, when he took Robert Morris to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Northeast Conference championship in 2009.
Granted, the NEC is not the Big East Conference. But this is who Mike Rice is.
“No one expects more than I do,” he said. “I expect to win every game, or at least to compete in every game. I’m aware of the obstacles, that we have no seniors playing, that there will be multiple freshmen on the floor. I’m aware of all that, but my level of demand, the culture we’ve built, we’ll try and fight through.”
Long one of the doormats of the Big East, Rice is hoping Rutgers will post its first winning year in the conference it joined in 1995. If that happens, a postseason berth will follow, he believes.
“It’s difficult, especially with the young team we have, but I think it’s a talented team with a solid group of veterans,” Rice said. “That’s kind of what our goals are. I’m not going to shy away from that. That’s what we have. We do what we do. I recruit to my system, and I think it’s an attacking system. It kind of fits my personality.”
Rice’s personality helped him land one of the top recruiting classes in the country, creating a roster that now has seven newcomers and three sophomores. They will be out to, at the least, flip last year’s record of 15-17.
From that group will come the core of the backcourt. A couple of juniors will help lead the way up front.
Gone are three players: Jonathan Mitchell; Mike Coburn and James Beatty; seniors who combined last year for 95 starts and departed with half the team’s scoring and a third of the rebounds.
Stepping in to adopt leadership roles will be juniors Dane Miller and Austin Johnson. Miller, a 6-foot-7 wing, was Big East All-Rookie two years ago. Johnson, at 6-foot-8, 255, is a bull underneath and will be asked to score more inside.
When he doesn’t, he’ll be using his passing skills to set up another league all-rookie player, sophomore Gilvydas Biruta. Also 6-foot-8, he is an aggressive rebounder and accurate shooter. He improved his game over the summer while playing in the U20 European Championships in Spain.
In the mix up front are freshmen Greg Lewis and Derrick Randall, both 6-9. The most anticipated newcomer, however, is redshirt freshman Kadeem Jack. However, the athletic 6-foot-10 New York City star broke a foot this summer and is not expected back before February.
Sophomores Mike Poole and Austin Carroll will compete for the shooting guard position. Both have good range and should only improve.
Such is the case for some other freshmen, mainly point guards Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears. Mack was a first-team ESPN All-America, having played for St. Anthony’s of Jersey City. Seagears averaged 32 points a game as a high school senior in North Carolina.
“We’ll play 10-11 players,” Rice said. “We’re gonna swing and we’re gonna swing hard, and at times we’re gonna get hit. It’s the old saying, ‘You can’t blink.’ I don’t see major changes, except maybe a lot more wins.”
Preferably in the conference.