By Jon Rothstein
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1. LACK OF JACK
When you’re building a program in the Big East, you need every possible thing bouncing in your direction to make a jump in the standings — and Rutgers suffered a setback when they lost prized freshman forward Kadeem Jack until at least January with a broken right foot. Without the 6-foot-9 shot blocker, the Scarlet Knights will be less athletic and showcase less depth, which could force Rutgers coach Mike Rice to alter the type of lineup he puts on the in between the lines.
2. BIRUTA THE BULLDOZER
Opponents and reputation mean absolutely nothing to Gilvydas Biruta. Regardless of who he’s playing, the sophomore from Lithuania continues to pursue the same goal every time he takes the floor — winning. A tenacious competitor and terrific post defender, look for 6-foot-8 Biruta to be a big part of whatever success Rutgers has this season.
3. WHO HOLDS THE COMPASS?
Unlike a year ago when Rutgers could look to seniors James Beatty, Mike Coburn, and Jonathan Mitchell for leadership, this particular group still has not defined who will steer them in an upward direction. Juniors Dane Miller and Austin Johnson are both candidates but the best bet might be Biruta. Although he’s only in his second season of college basketball, Biruta plays like a rugged veteran and is the closest thing this team has to a coach on the floor.
4. RETURN OF THE MACK
Despite being the pied piper of Rutgers’ stellar recruiting efforts a year ago, Myles Mack had yet to show the standout form in practice that many expected — but Monday was a completely different story. Armed with a strong will running the offense and sporting his trademark in between game on offense, Mack showed glimpses of what Scarlet Knights fans desperate crave — hope.
5. IDENTITY CHANGE
While the outside shooting of both Beatty and Mitchell was a strength of Rutgers last season and often bailed them out in end of shot clock situations, there are serious concerns over who will make shots from deep this season. Two first-year guards, Mack and Eli Carter have the ability to be long range threats but have yet to prove it at the Big East level. Sophomore wing Mike Poole should also be put in bold print in this area.
– Derrick Randall is a significantly better player now then when Rutgers started individual workouts in September. The southpaw should be a serviceable player in the non-conference schedule and could develop into an offensive rebounding threat in the Big East.
– In spurts, freshman point guard Jerome Seagears looks like he has the potential to be an All-Big East point guard and then moments later he looks like he’s ready for a snow day. My guess is he’ll be somewhere in between all season.
– Rice and this team are going to have an extremely tall task in their second game at Miami on November 15th. The Hurricanes won’t have a healthy Reggie Johnson who is out with a knee injury but they will sport a slew of veteran guards headlined by New York natives Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant. For a young team like Rutgers, that is the definition of being thrown into the fire.
THEY SAID IT:
“This is by far the biggest challenge I’ve had in my coaching career and I didn’t think that two weeks ago,” – Rice on the season ahead at Rutgers.
“They have absolutely no idea what it takes to win a Division One game,” Rice on the mindset of Rutgers.
“I’m going to play some four guard sets with Dane Miller at power forward. We’ll have to switch it up a bit,” Rice on how he plans to play when Kadeem Jack is injured.
The palpable buzz that Rice brought to Rutgers with his energy and standout recruiting class still resonates in Piscataway, but it’s important that expectations with this specific team are immediately tempered. With mostly freshmen and sophomores, this band of Scarlet Knights has the potential to get better as the Big East season progresses but any berth in the postseason has to be considered a surprise. A .500 season would be a major accomplishment.
How will Rutgers fare this season? Leave a comment below.