Mike Rice's first season as head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights ended with controversy as his team was somewhat screwed by terrible officiating in a loss to St. John's in the Big East Tournament. With a talented group of in-coming freshmen, Rice has Rutgers on the right path, but the program is still a year or two away from competing with some of the bigger dogs in the conference.
Rice impressed the heck out of me in his first season at Rutgers. His team competed extremely hard on a nightly basis and despite lacking the talent to hang in the Big East, the Knights showed tremendous promise. An influx of freshman talent that is one of the better recruiting classes RU has seen in some time only adds to the optimism surrounding the program.
The most touted of the seven freshmen is 5-10 point guard Myles Mack. He is lightning quick with the basketball and capable of being a distributor or a scorer when needed. Mack and fellow freshman Jerome Seagears could end up being the starting backcourt. Seagears is also able to run the point and would give Rice two ball-handlers on the floor at the same time. Tyree Graham missed all of last season after undergoing knee surgery and then ruptured his Achilles in April putting his season in jeopardy. That means freshman Eli Carter will likely be the first guard off the bench while sharpshooter Austin Carroll will try to work his way into the rotation.
Junior Dane Miller brings the most experience to the floor and will have to establish himself as a leader. He will return to the starting small forward role with sophomore wing Mike Poole probably being the team's sixth man. Both guys are athletic and versatile defenders, but struggle with their outside shots. Freshman Malick Kone figures to be the odd man out at small forward.
Power forward Kadeem Jack is another highly anticipated recruit, who enrolled at Rutgers after the first semester of last year but chose to redshirt. His agility inside will be a great complement to crafty scorer Gilvydas Biruta who really made great strides during his freshman season and was a Big East All-Rookie selection.
Austin Johnson was a valuable contributor off the bench due to his size and strength, and will again be counted on to provide depth inside. Freshmen Derrick Randall and Greg Lewis are talented and physical interior players who give Rice more options than he had a year ago. Kansas State transfer Wally Judge committed to Rutgers this summer but will sit out this per NCAA rules. He will add even more competition during practices and is another solid piece for the future.
I truly believe that Rutgers is one of the more promising programs of the many college basketball teams trying to undergo a rebuilding project. Their struggles are well-documented; not having a winning conference record in more than a decade and failing to make the NCAA Tournament for 20 years. With a young nucleus and energetic head coach, the Scarlet Knights are on the rise. However, they are still too young to move into the upper half of the Big East. In another year or two, it could be a completely different story.
Player to Watch: Myles Mack, PG
With a lot of physical guards in the Big East, it will be interesting to see how the small Mack handles the transition in his freshman campaign. He will have to rely on his speed and savvy as a point guard to carry him until he is able to get stronger. There should be great competition at the point with Seagers, Carter, and Graham that should help Mack get ready for the rigors of the Big East.