By Jon Rothstein
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Rutgers was a trendy pick to make a jump in the Big East before Mike Rice was suspended for three games due to inappropriate language and behavior.
The Scarlet Knights banded together during Rice’s absence and won three straight, showing flashes of the unit that many believed could climb its way into the top half of the conference standings.
But there’s still many issues surrounding this team that have nothing to do with their basketball coach.
Rice returns from his suspension on Wednesday night against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and the third-year coach will hope to cure some of what’s plagued this team during their solid, but somewhat flawed 9-2 start.
The Scarlet Knights have yet to face a team this season that’s a lock for the NCAA Tournament, and have also flinched whenever they’ve sniffed adversity. Rutgers played a solid 30 minutes in the SEC/Big East Challenge against Ole Miss, but folded midway through the second half when the Rebels went on a run and extended their lead. There were also victories against George Washington, Boston University and Iona where the Scarlet Knights built big leads and then lost them, barely hanging on for narrow wins.
Their coach may have been absent for the past few weeks, but Rice — a fighter and blue-collar guy by nature — is going to have to install some toughness in his team if this group has any chance to accomplish what they hope to accomplish — a berth in the postseason.
After a 14-18 season a year ago that saw Rutgers earn four Top 30 wins with mostly freshmen, the bar has been raised.
Rice has vowed to make a change in his behavior, and he knows that he’ll be under heavy scrutiny moving forward. The suspension, though, hasn’t changed the fact that Rice is coaching a mercurial team.
Sophomore guards Myles Mack (14.5 PPG) and Eli Carter (16.9 PPG) have put up strong statistics in the team’s first 11 games, but there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be savvy enough to display the leadership that this team needs to win close games in league play. Fellow sophomore guard Jerome Seagears, a breakout performer as a freshman, has really struggled in the non-conference portion of the schedule and needs to augment his level of production.
The frontcourt, headlined by Kansas State transfer Wally Judge (7.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG) is talented but unproven. The Scarlet Knights have gotten good mileage out of 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Kadeem Jack, but he’s yet to prove that he can produce regularly in the Big East.
Perhaps the only known commodity for this team is versatile senior Dane Miller, a 6-foot-6 active body who is best suited playing as an undersized power forward.
The requisites are in place for Rutgers to have a solid season — just as they were before Rice was suspended — but there’s no way to know how this team is going to respond the next time they get punched.
And that will happen tonight against Syracuse. And then it will happen again, and again. The Orange are one of the most talented teams in the country and have seven potential players on their roster that could play at the next level.
In the Rutgers’ media guide, many of the Scarlet Knights players verbalize how their favorite quote of Rice’s is, “You can’t control what happens to you. You can control how you respond.”
We’ll find out how this group responds on Wednesday night, and that may be a very strong indication of how they’ll respond for the rest of the season.
Will Rutgers be respectable in Big East play, or will they take an ugly conference record into the offseason? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…