If there's someone who has his fingers on the pulse of Rutgers basketball, it's Mike Vorkunov. He's covered the team consistently for the past several years with The Daily Targum, and New Jeresey Newsroom's Pressbox. He graciously sat down with On the Banks for a few questions.
On the Banks: How do you feel about Mike Rice's first year on the banks? The good and the bad.
Mike Vorkunov: I think Mike Rice's first year went about as good as you can hope. We knew all along that the record was going to be what it was, the real measurable characteristics were going to be in how hard they played and what execution he could coax out of them. Rutgers played as hard as anyone in the country and most importantly they didn't quit on him at the end of the year, when they were losing games and his grinding style could have worn on them. Also, he showed that he can develop players. Look at Jonathan Mitchell and Mike Coburn. I think you learned that he's a good coach, his players love to play for him, and that a full year of his exhausting style is doable.
More following the jump...OtB: What impact will Wally Judge have on Rutgers both next year (when he can't play) and in the future when he can?
MV: Next year, it'll be as a practice player. Most improvement comes between games and when you're getting pushed every practice because of a full depth chart, that gets accelerated. It'll be good for Gil Biruta, Greg Lewis and Derrick Randall to go up against a talented third year collegiate. As for when he's eligible, that's a little more unclear. He's got the skills but he came nowhere near meeting expectations at Kansas State. It's not as if Frank Martin was a lax coach who didn't push him. It may have just been a situation with too many variables working against him and now he gets a chance to reboot.
OtB: What about the rest of the newcomers? Who do you think will end up standing out the most at Rutgers over the next four years? Why?
MV: I think James Beatty and even Coburn, somebody has to score.
OtB: What does Mike Rice have to get his team to do next season to the keep the positive momentum building?
MV: The obvious answer is to win a few games. I'm not talking a 20-win season but a gradual incline from last season. Nothing kills momentum more than losing. Even this year, if you remember back in February, that bandwagon didn't get full until fans saw tangible evidence. Along with that, seeing something from the freshmen. They're heralded but at least two or three of them will need to do something to show it's not without reason. Rutgers fans are finicky.
OtB: With the strong senior core of Mitchell, Beatty, and Coburn gone and no seniors on the roster, who--if anyone--steps up to be the team leader next year?
MV: I think Dane Miller has to be the guy. He matured by embracing his defensive responsibilities and started to become more vocal. He's going to be a junior and with so many freshmen, he has to assume that leadership role.
OtB: What do you expect from the local three Big East teams (Seton Hall, St. John's and RU) next season?
MV: First, with Rutgers, it's tough to know what you're getting out of freshmen. Even the highest-profile ones aren't money in the bank right away. I think because so much of that rotation is going to be freshmen and sophomores, you have to temper expectations. For Seton Hall, they'll get Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope back but we saw what happens when Jeremy Hazell isn't there. And they are still coalescing with . St. John's is losing their top five leading scorers and replacing them with their own mega-freshman class with all its own pratfalls. I think Rutgers finishes 11th, St. John's 12th and Seton Hall 13th.
OtB: Is Mike Rice the guy to get Rutgers back to the NCAAs after twenty-something years?
MV: Yes, but it won't be next year. The 2012-13 season however...