Expectations for '11-'12: Dane Miller

With a great deal of roster turnover on tap, predicting next season for the Rutgers men's basketball team is no easy task. Gone are three senior starters in forward Jonathan Mitchell and guards James Beatty and Mike Coburn, and reserve forward Robert Lumpkins. Wing Tyree Graham never saw the court in the just-concluded season while recovering from a knee injury. Seven incoming freshman have signed letters of intent.  The dearth of returning experience in the backcourt will likely create ample playing time for newcomers Jerome Seagears and Myles Mack. You almost want to write off the season entirely to rebuilding, but that will be challenge with so much lingering excitement carrying over from this spring. After all, they are hardly the only league roster scheduled for an offseason facelift.

Further complicating matters is that Rutgers is likely to shift away from the "garbage ball" strategies of '10-'11, which saw the Scarlet Knights slow game tempos down to a snail's pace in an effort to limit possessions. This strategy prevented games from getting too out of out of hand, largely limiting opportunities for top opposing scorers to go on hot streaks. With only nine healthy scholarship players on the roster, imitating a Big Ten team was also useful in hiding a critical lack of roster depth. Mike Rice is, well, a vocal and animated presence on the sidelines. All appearances are that he demands the same full throttle intensity from his players on the court; a marked departure from what the team had previously experienced.

Rice not only ran a much faster offense while at Robert Morris (hello, an actual half court transition game), but his teams pressed on the defensive end too. A few games of that would have quickly ran a thin roster ragged through the ringer of Big East league play. The reasoning behind signing seven freshmen has been much debated here and elsewhere. Surely, no coach can keep more than eight or nine players in a rotation and happy? Won't the staff absolutely end up redshirting a player or two, if only to maintain some level of roster balance? Maybe so, but it is at least possible to conceive of the need for a deeper bench if Rice and his assistants plan to match this year's intensity with a far more aggressive style on both ends.

Next year's Rutgers basketball team should be a series of questions, each subsequent conjecture piled up on top of one another. If those uncertainties weren't confounding enough, who's to say that every roster returnee will see a similar role in the future? Players are not always the same from one season to the next, peaking and regressing based on any number of factors. Who counted on F.I.G. and Ollie Bailey being immediately miscast under Fred Hill? For a positive example, there's the case of a Hamady N'Diaye, who needed four years to grow into a top Big East center.

That's what is so confounding about all the various ongoing discussion and speculation out there currently. It sure would be great if Rutgers could field a roster full of High School All-Americans. If that were even possible, how is the coaching staff going to free up another scholarship? Oh, so you want to cut this or that underclassman? Haven't they shown flashes here or there though to deserve more than a cup of coffee? Isn't it, you know, outrageously premature to think Rutgers of all programs could be in the position of cutting ties with players who may well end up contributing on the Big East level? Do you want to bet against the staff with another full offseason after seeing what they just essentially patched together with a figurative ball of twine?

With a new system in place, even the supposed "sure things" are nothing of the sort. Gilvydas Biruta exceeded expectations as a true freshman center. Next year he will be playing in a new system, and switching to power forward, which intuitively seems like a better fit for him and his wily intentions to take more jump shots. Fair enough, but who plays center in that case? Is it Kadeem Jack, the mid-year redshirt enrollee with a mountain of press clippings? Most accounts have him being similarly out of position. Austin Johnson fits that mold a little better, but good luck projecting a raw big man entering his junior year.

That dynamic has been debated to death already, as have all the conceivable back court lineups, with both certain to be further run into the ground in the coming months ahead. What if nothing can be taken for granted next season at all? Specifically, RU's only '10-'11 starter projected to return next year in the exact same role is small forward Dane Miller. He will have advanced from a sophomore to a junior, must adjust to a brand new back court, and conceivably have more muscle backing him up on the glass from whichever combination ultimately does end up playing there.

Miller is interesting in the sense that he strongly exceeded expectations as a freshman. Hey, the team was imploding around him, but this guy was turning into quite the player. Then the perception was that was mired in place as a sophomore. Miller couldn't race around free and undisciplined any longer. He scored 9.2 points last season, and an identical 9.2 his second go around in an expanded role. Save for a few standout performances (for instance, a scintillating all-around performance against Seton Hall in January), the consensus over the past few months was that Miller was a relative disappointment playing in more of a complimentary role. Still a useful all-around player mind you, but he did not exactly make the leap that everyone had wishfully forecast.

Is that take entirely accurate? As compared to his freshman season, Dane Miller cut down on his turnovers and blocked more shots. Rutgers, of course, was running a very different offense, with a very different supporting cast (minus Rosario and N'Diaye, plus Biruta and others.) This debate ultimately comes back around to the influence of factors like tempo and possession rate. Rutgers games this past year had a total of 2085 possessions, averaging out to 65.2 every forty minutes. The previous year those figures were 2188 and 68.4 respectively.

The fall in KenPom's tempo rankings, from 106 to 284, are starker still. Miller attempted the second highest number of field goals on the team last season. Hypothetically adding back some of those missing possessions would bump up his overall points total. People are falling into a trap of obsessing too much over his number of buckets, when the guy brings so much more to the table with athleticism, passing, rebounding, and defense. Not being an elite scorer is hardly a capital offense for a roster that is still in dire need of live bodies...and for crying out loud, he still has time to improve. At least give him that chance next year before rushing to declare Seagears to Jack as the new Stockman to Malone.

Anyway, that's one early take on the next few months of questions and speculation that will probably dominate the offseason. With the NCAA Tournament already a fleeting memory, this was one last opportunity to close the book, and try to start setting the table for next year's chapter in the Rutgers men's basketball story. At least from my end it should pretty much be all football from here on out for the conceivable future.

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