By Jon Rothstein
» More Columns
There have been shining moments and forgettable ones.
Nights to remember and others that most coaches wish they could automatically erase forever.
Such is the case when you take a team full of freshmen into the Big East. Some might call it a slippery slope. Others would call it playing with fire.
Rutgers coach Mike Rice just speaks the truth.
“We’re not half bad when we don’t get in our own way,” Rice said last week.
The question is — can the Scarlet Knights do just that in the second half of the Big East season?
No one knows for sure.
Despite the fact that Rutgers enters tonight’s game at Providence with a 12-10 record overall and a 4-5 mark in conference play, the Scarlet Knights could have a much different look in the won-loss column.
There was the game against South Florida on New Year’s Day where they held a one point lead with 17 seconds left before losing by three.
Then there was two Saturday’s ago at Georgetown where Rutgers led the Hoyas 50-45 with two and a half minutes to play before falling by a basket.
And then last week at home, the Scarlet Knights had an 11-point lead over DePaul with just over ten minutes to play before a late rally by the Blue Demons gave them a comeback win.
No doubt — especially when you consider the positives.
Four of this Rutgers’ 12 wins have come against teams that have a legitimate chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and in victories over Florida, UCONN, Notre Dame, and Cincinnati, the Scarlet Knights proved that on a given night, they can beat anybody — but they’ve also proven that they can lose to anybody.
“There’s no doubt this is the toughest challenge of my coaching career,” Rice said earlier this season. “The key is getting these kids to understand just how hard it is to win games at this level. They didn’t have a clue at first but they’re starting to grasp it.”
So how does this team add to its resume and make sure its playing its best basketball in March?
Check below for five keys to Rutgers peaking in February.
FIVE KEYS FOR RUTGERS
1. WILL JACK GIVE A JOLT?
Kadeem Jack was brought to Piscataway as Rice’s marquee recruit but a foot injury has drastically derailed his progress in his freshman season. Over the next nine Big East games, the Scarlet Knights desperately need a jolt from Jack who has the ability to have a great impact on a game without scoring thanks to his intangibles and athleticism.
2. DEPTH PERCEPTION
While scoring was an issue early in the season for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights have become more potent at putting the ball in the basket thanks to the emergence of freshmen guards Eli Carter and Myles Mack — but some pop off the bench would add a great deal. In this team’s win over Notre Dame, veterans Mike Poole and Austin Johnson combined for 19 points and seven rebounds as reserves. Three quarters of that would be tremendous on a nightly basis.
3. WILL SEAGEARS BE SMOOTH?
He hasn’t gotten the headlines of his classmates but Jerome Seagears has made drastic strides for Rutgers since when practice first began in October. The freshman point guard has become somewhat of a stabilizer recently, only committing four turnovers in his last four games. Now the question is, can he put it all together? A jet in the open floor, Seagears has the ability to generate easy baskets in transition if he commits himself to being a willing defender on each and every possession.
4. A DOSE OF DANE
There is no more time for talk about what Dane Miller could be — his time is now. The junior small forward has grasped a leadership role with this young team and in the process, had some memorable games in wins at Pitt and against Florida. Now he needs to do it each time he steps on the floor. If he does, Rutgers has the perimeter defender in the Big East.
5. POISE, POISE, POISE
One thing freshman never understand is the value of a possession. Seasons and careers are often defined by one possession and Rutgers has already learned this season how valuable each 30 second period will be. It’s going to be up to this group to seize every opportunity and most importantly, value the basketball when things get most chaotic if they want to finish the season with a record that’s indicative of their capabilities.
Your thoughts on the Rutgers freshmen? Sound off below…