Night Line: Rutgers Showing Flashes of a Promising FuturePosted by EJacoby on December 30th, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
For most of the last decade, Rutgers has been an afterthought of the Big East conference, synonymous with the bottom of the standings. The Scarlet Knights haven’t finished better than 5-13 in Big East play since 2006. But since Mike Rice was hired as head coach last season, the team has shown improvements and the losing culture of the program could be making its way out. On Thursday night, the Knights took down the ninth-ranked Florida Gators at home, providing flashes of great basketball and sending students to rush the court. With a young core of players who will all be back next season, Rutgers may finally be building a successful team that fans can look forward to watching.
This Rutgers team features a talented group of freshmen that already has made its mark on the program, as rookie guards Eli Carter, Myles Mack, and Jerome Seagears are three of the four leading scorers on the team. Carter scores a team-leading 12.8 PPG after going off for 31 points in the double-overtime win over Florida, while Mack (10.8 PPG) hit several clutch three-point shots as part of his 14 points in the win. Seagears leads the team with 2.4 assists and adds 8.2 points per contest. In addition to the frosh guards, the Scarlet Knights’ other leading scorers are sophomores Gilvydas Biruta (10.9 PPG) and Mike Poole (7.2 PPG), and junior Dane Miller (7.2 PPG). Strong forward Biruta is the team’s leading rebounder (6.0 RPG), while Miller contributes across the board to the tune of 5.6 boards, 2.2 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 56% from the field. Everyone will be back next season and should improve, giving the Knights and their fans plenty to look forward to.
We saw signs of improvement coming last year, in Rice’s first season as coach, when a team short on talent still managed to play close games in conference play, including a win over then-top-10 Villanova in February. After Thursday’s thrilling victory, Rutgers can now boast two victories over top 10 teams in this calendar year. Of course, a couple of great wins do not make up for some of Rutgers’ other performances in the non-conference. This team (7-5 overall) has a neutral court loss to Illinois State and home losses to Princeton and LSU. Those games remind us that Rutgers is still a long way away, and they are likely to finish in the bottom third of the Big East standings yet again.
One of the things plaguing this year’s team is the lack of point guard play. No player on the team averages more than 2.4 assists per game, and the Knights have a poor 0.86 assist-to-turnover ratio that doesn’t even crack the top 200 teams in the country. This seems like a problem that could be addressed and handled going forward, since the three leading freshmen Carter, Mack, and Seagears are all guards capable of handling the point. Better shot selection and ball movement will go a long way to creating better offense. Next year, Miller, Poole, and Biruta will be upperclassmen and perhaps can bring some stability to the roster after having fought in multiple years of Big East battles.
Going forward, Rutgers needs to more consistently channel the effort that led to wins over Villanova and now Florida. That should be attainable with a strong collection of young talent, as the lumps that the Scarlet Knights have taken this season are typical growing pains for a young team. The Rutgers basketball program is in good hands with Mike Rice and his .649 career winning percentage, which consists of three years at Robert Morris before coming to Rutgers. His developing young players gave fans a treat with Thursday’s victory and should provide them with high hopes going forward. Don’t expect to see the jump come right away in this year’s Big East schedule, but signs of improvement will be key to creating momentum for the program.