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The addition of an athletic wing. A McDonald's All American eligible to play. And the subtraction of a fan favorite. Plus Mike Poole. This is a big year for the Scarlet Knight Juniors...
Mike Rice's first class was one full of patchwork. He took the job in May of 2010, and scrambled to fill a four man class. He kept Fred Hill recruits Austin Carroll and Gilvydas Biruta, brought in a JUCO player in Tyree Graham, and a freshman wing Mike Poole.
Probably the biggest hindrance to Mike Rice's rebuilding project was two injuries in consecutive years to Tyree Graham. In year 1 of the Rice era, Graham had a torn ACL and would have added a much needed scorer to an undermanned but hard fighting veteran team. In year 2, Graham tore his Achilles and missed the season again. It would have given the team much needed experience in the backcourt. Now Graham is gone, transferred to UNC-Wilmington to try and build a college career. Good luck to him; it's a shame it never worked out at RU.
Meanwhile, Austin Carroll was a hardworker, but not a fit for the Big East. He suffered knee injuries in consecutive years and ultimately transferred American University.
Finally comes Gilvydas Biruta. Biruta, a fan favorite, was a hard working player and one the opposing team always had to watch out for. Rice played him at center in his freshman year, and Biruta was willing to bang with the big boys of the Big East. In his sophomore year, Biruta moved to power forward and tried to fill the void left when Jonathan Mitchell graduated. But he seemed to disappear too often last year. The offense worked better when he was in the game, but he was saddled with foul trouble and didn't take advantage of his time. Ultimately, he decided to transfer and follow his high school coach, Danny Hurley, to Rhode Island. Biruta was a big part of Rice's plans, and he will be missed.
Rice, have Poole as his only junior, was forced to rebuild that class. He will try to fill the Biruta hole with transfer Wally Judge and added an athletic wing in Vincent Garrett.
So, let's preview what's left:
Mike Poole: Poole is a leader in waiting. Poole started to really come on last year, showing a jump shot from the elbow and a developing 3 point shot. After Midnight Madness, it appeared Poole has put on more muscle, without sacrificing any of his athleticism. Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Poole has always wanted to be the player to take the best shot. That's a great mentality to have, but this year Poole has to learn patience. He has to take shots within the offense. If he does that, Poole can grow into one of the best players on the team. He can defend, he can slash, and he is always thinking out there. Too often, Poole's aggressiveness is his weakness. Look for him to cut down on turnovers, and play smart basketball this year. Poole is going to be a player teams sleep on, and if that happens, he's going to light up the stat sheet. He's big enough, now, to play 3 positions, guard, small forward and some power forward. He's going to be Rice's everyman, filling whatever role is needed. Look for a big year from Mike Poole. He wants to be good too badly to be stopped.
Wally Judge: Just take one look at Judge and you'll see a beast. Wally Judge is built like a basketball player. He is huge, muscular and athletic. Transferring from Kansas State, Judge is here to be better than Biruta. Watching him in warm-ups, you see a player who can dunk and who can rebound. And that is what Judge is going to be expected to do. Attack the basket, and be a Big East player. The key to Judge this year will be staying out of foul trouble and making the chippees. There's no doubt Judge will be able to rebound, he's too strong not to be. If he can pull down the key rebound, when RU needs a key stop, that will be huge. He doesn't have to block shots, he needs to play solid positional basketball. Frank Martin, at Kansas St, seemed to get into Judge's head and slow his development down. By all accounts, Rice is less intense away from the court, but Judge will still have to deal with some of Rice's antics on the court. Rice will tone it down this year, he has to to succeed, and that will help Judge. Look for him to be an 8 and 10 player. If Judge can do that, Rutgers will be a good team this year, because it will take the pressure off the guards.
Vincent Garrett: A JUCO wing, Garrett is an athletic specimen. He looks the part of a Big East wing. Lean and muscular, Garrett put on a show during the dunk contest and, by all accounts, in the JSBL this year. These are not times when you judge how a player actually will be, but Garrett passes the eye test. While Mike Rice searched for a wing with 3 point range, he ended up with Garrett a 20% 3 point shooter. No, Garrett will be another player who can slash and attack the basket. Rutgers is going to live and die by their defense this year. If they can force turnovers, Garrett and Miller are going to blow up. It will be a dunk show in the fast break. Early reports were Garrett has improved his range, but you don't want him trying to make 3 after 3 and missing them. Garrett has to play to his strengths, just like the rest of this team. Let Myles Mack, Malick Kone and Eli Carter shoot from deep. Garrett is a player that needs to push Dane Miller for playing time, and force Miller to have a big year. Garrett looks like the most athletic player on the team. He needs to defend the hell out of the SF position, and be able to take over games at the basket. Draw fouls, get to the line, and-if he shot has improved-only make a 3 when the D lets him shoot it.
After a completely rebuilt Junior class, there are a lot of question marks and unknown here. These are the players you want to watch play early in the year. You want to see what Garrett and Judge have to offer. They have the look, now they need to produce. What Garrett, Judge and Poole offer this year will go along way toward getting Rutgers to the post season.