Tipping Off the Big East Countdown: #15 RutgersPosted by Will Tucker on October 9th, 2012
With Midnight Madness mere days away, and college basketball action kicking off next month, today we begin to ramp up our coverage of Big East hoops in 2012-2013. In anticipation of the upcoming season, the Big East Microsite will examine the season outlook for each conference team. Each day, we’ll be posting a synopsis of one Big East squad, in ascending order based our writers’ predicted final conference standings. Today, we’ll begin our preseason coverage with the team we predict will finish last, Rutgers (13-16, 5-13 Big East).
Rutgers finds itself in an uncertain and inauspicious position entering the 2012-13 season; the most positive news out of Piscataway this offseason was video footage of coach Mike Rice rappelling down a building in New Jersey to raise money for cancer research. The Scarlet Knights enter our preseason Big East rankings squarely at the bottom. Rice brings some nice pieces to the table this season, but loses the mercurial Gilvydas Biruta. It also remains to be seen whether Rutgers’ young talent has matured enough to win more games away from the RAC.
Rutgers eases into the Big East gauntlet with a manageable non-conference schedule. Their most daunting tests will come against Iona in New York City and at Ole Miss (although admittedly they dodge a bullet once again in the Big East/SEC Challenge, after facing LSU last season). Rutgers benefits from a manageable conference slate in what appears, on paper at least, to be a down Big East. The Scarlet Knights trade visits with Cincinnati, Georgetown, Seton Hall and St. John’s, but get both Louisville and Marquette at home this year. Last year Rutgers played its best basketball at the RAC –– putting together wins against Florida, Cincinnati, UConn and Notre Dame –– so the schedule sets up nicely for them to win a couple of games they won’t be favored in. But considering the issues they had playing on the road in 2011-2012, they could easily head into Big East play with several bad losses.
Mike Rice returns four of his top five scorers from a year ago. He preserves some valuable continuity in his backcourt in talented sophomores Eli Carter (13.8 PPG), Jerome Seagears (7.7 PPG) and Myles Mack (9.8 PPG), along with senior defensive guru Dana Miller (7.9 PPG). Rice also adds some much needed size in 6’9″, 250-pound Kansas State transfer Wally Judge, who’s expected to step into a starting job immediately. Judge has had a year to acclimate to his new team and coach while waiting to become eligible, so ideally his transition will be fairly fluid. Nonetheless, Judge remains much of a question mark given his limited production at KSU, where he averaged 5.5 PPG and 3.8 RPG in 15 minutes per contest as a sophomore. Also entering the picture is junior college transfer Vincent Garrett, who will provide some depth in the backcourt.
Causes for optimism heading into this season were overshadowed by the loss of perhaps the most highly anticipated player of the Mike Rice era. The team’s chances to make substantial improvement suffered a blow when Gilvydas Biruta transferred to Rhode Island. While Biruta’s development seemed to stall last year in a guard-oriented offense, he was the third-leading scorer (9.7 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (5.3 RPG) on a team that struggled mightily in both statistical categories last year (ranking 226th and 176th in the nation, respectively).
Whom to watch
The most compelling narratives of Rutgers’ season will be the development of Wally Judge and the maturation of a talented but young backcourt. The team’s front line appears quite thin on paper, and it seems very unlikely that Judge will contribute enough to replace Biruta’s presence right out of the gate. Conditioning may become an issue for Wally, a player who hasn’t logged a minute of game time in more than a year. Ultimately, lack of depth and the uncertainty surrounding Judge makes Rutgers’ frontcourt a glaring deficiency.
Furthermore, while the returning backcourt looks promising on paper, no one should expect Mike Rice’s guards to become drastically more consistent over a single offseason. While their youth will be less of a liability, it’s a tall order to expect the sophomores to anchor a winning team in what will be a very competitive bottom half of the Big East.
Mike Rice’s rebuilding project will likely take a step backward this year. The forgiving non-conference schedule can give the squad a valuable opportunity to gel and find its identity before facing the Big East meat grinder. Alternatively, it can set up Rutgers fans for a rude awakening when their team opens conference play in the Carrier Dome. Given a thin and untested frontcourt and young guards that have yet to demonstrate steady play, Rutgers could easily collapse early in the conference schedule. We’ll see what they’re made of in the first week of December when they get valuable tests away from home against Iona and Ole Miss. The team will likely miss the NCAA Tournament again this year, but Rutgers fans will find a silver lining in the highly seasoned cast of upperclassman returning the following season.