It's one of the things Mike Rice has harped on all season long.
The Rutgers men's basketball team has to be mentally tough. They can't wilt when things go bad. They have to get angry. They have to get ornery. They have to want it more.
And now, with the team at a crossroads, it's Rice's job to get them to respond the right way. It's his job to get them to find that mental toughness when they prepare.
More after the jump...In his recap of the St. John's game, Brendan Prunty quoted Rice, who said:
"I kicked them out of Monday’s practice because they didn’t play hard," Rice said. "I thought I was going to have to cut it short because they’d have so much passion for coming so close. Being this close to being good in the Big East, being .500 or just winning games. And this team seems to take on a personality of its own sometimes. So, yeah, I worry about [their psyche]."
And Mike Vorkunov shows that even one of the "thickest skinned" Knights is worried.
"I don’t know how much more we can take as a team," said Mike Coburn, reiterating his coach’s thoughts. "It’s really tough coming so close to a victory and not coming out on the right side – the win column. Something’s gotta change within the team and us players because we’re the ones playing. We have to dig in and figure a way out to come up on the win column instead of losing because it’s not fun and we don’t like it. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
Mike Coburn's been through this before. He's used to coming up short.
Rice, however, is not. He's used to a good team getting angry over a close loss. Wanting to bounce back from a bump in the road, and wanting to destroy the next team they played. But this team hasn't done that. For Rice to have to kick them out of practice, it's clear they don't know how to get angry. How to play with a passion.
Instead, this team gets down on themselves.
This is all part of changing the culture of losing that has run rampant through Rutgers basketball. In the past ten seasons, there have been 3 that were anywhere near exciting, and the most recent one was five years ago. In the time I've followed the team, Rutgers has never faired well after a close loss, and the fact they battled yesterday is heartening. But for a team that comes out flat, this is a critical juncture of the season.
Two weeks ago, the team was on the verge of a breakthrough. After beating Seton Hall on the road, they were brimming with confidence and one game away from .500 in the Big East. They played their hearts out against Pittsburgh, but came up short. Last night, they played pretty bad on offense and still found a way to tie the game with under a minute left.
But with two losses in a row like this, their confidence is shaken. And with two ranked teams on the horizon, they're staring a 3-9 Big East record in the face. They have to show some mental toughness. And it won't be easy. It appears Gilvydas Biruta may be hitting a bit of a freshman wall. James Beatty's shot's been off. And Austin Carroll, who was just starting to give some meaningful minutes off the bench before his injury, needs to find his stride again.
After the UNC blowout, Rice tough this team to respond, and the results were promising.
After UConn went on a 25-2 run, and ran RU out of the gym, Rice got this team to focus and play like a team again. The in-game weaknesses are starting to fade. This team doesn't quit when it gets down anymore.
It's time for Mike Rice's next lesson. Teaching the team to get angry. Teaching them to rebound from two heartbreaking losses.
The next exam is Sunday. It'll be interesting to see how Rutgers reacts.