Less than 20 days until practice can officially begin for the 2011-2012 Scarlet Knights' hoops team. That's just under a month before all the questions that have been building since last March will start to be answered. How will Mike Rice coach a freshman laden team? Who will be the leaders of this new team?
Can they make a surprise run to the NIT, or--dare I say it--the NCAA tournament?
The answers begin with one player: Dane Miller.
Read about him after the jump...Last year, Miller was supposed to be the superstar. Coming off a year without restraint, where Miller had already made the All Big East Freshman team, he was supposed to step up and lead the Scarlet Knights offensively. But the sophomore struggled early in the season. A player who'd been given free reign under Fred Hill was suddenly trying to fit into an offensive season and become a better defensive player as well.
And right around the first Seton Hall match-up, the defensive end seemed to click for Dane Miller. The hard work started to pay off. He shut down Jeremy Hazell and the Knights came away with a Big East road win. For the rest of the season, Miller's practice paid off on the defensive end. He became the Scarlet Knights' most reliable defender and made two important steals in the waning minutes of the miracle Villanova win.
But now even more pressure is being put on Miller's shoulders. As a junior, Miller is one of the two oldest players on a team with no seniors. He and Austin Johnson are going to have to grow up quick and become the leaders of the team. Last year's squad fed off their seniors--three players who had lost their entire careers and wanted nothing more than to go out winners. Can Miller step up and be a vocal leader?
Early word is, Miller is living up to the challenge. If he can be the leader the team needs, then the rest of the young players can focus on learning, getting better and eventually becoming key members of the team. They don't have to worry about getting other players going.
But Miller has to improve as well. His offensive game suffered last year as he focused on his defense. Under Hill, Miller worried about driving to the hoop, passing the ball, and tipping in offensive rebounds. Under Rice, he had a lot of trouble fitting into an offensive scheme. In order to fit into that scheme and become a complete player Miller needs to develop a jump shot. Reports from the JSBL said he did that; his shot was greatly improved. But can that translate into the Big East, where defense is played?
There are going to be weapons around Miller now. Myles Mack, Jerome Seagears--they can shoot. Gilvydas Biruta will still bang on the boards.
But Miller has to be something that he hasn't been before.
He has to become this year's Jonathan Mitchell. He has to be there when the game is on the line. When the team is down and looking for someone to step up, it has to be Dane Miller. He needs to put the ball in the hole--be it on a 3 point shot, a drive to the basket for the hoop and the harm, or a monster dunk on a fast break.
If he can become that--and still play defense, Rutgers is already at an advantage over last year.