Basketball season is right around the corner. Practice officially starts this weekend, the recruiting wars are heating up, and Jon Rothstein's countdown has reached single digits. Basically, we are very, very close. And with that, Rutgers enters a key season in Mike Rice's tenure. While he is in the midst of some heated recruiting battles, the most important progress for the program will come on the court.
HIs first year, Rice shined, bringing together an undermanned, ragtag group and getting them to overachieve.
Last year, Rutgers had a young team, one that showed flashes of greatness, but also moments of confusion. The team clearly had to mature.
Now the team has to take a step forward. And that starts with seniors. So, let's take a look at them, shall we?
Dane Miller: Miller, a small forward, is one of the biggest questions marks--and also biggest exclamation marks--on the team. Everyone who follows Rutgers basketball knows what Dane Miller can do when he focuses. Last year, as a junior, the team went as Miller went. There were stretches where Miller was dominant, including a game winning put back against St. John's, a dominating 21 point performance against Seton Hall, and 16 points in the win of the year against Florida. There is no question Dane can play. But he often disappears, as well (last year again West Virginia, for one).
The problem with Miller has always been consistency. He's always wanted to be a pass-first player, someone who makes everyone around him better. He's not a great shooter. But he's so athletic that he can get to the basket nearly at will. He's great in the open court, and he's the team's best defender. Rice has molded him into a stopper, often putting him on the opposition's best player (ie stopping Jeremy Hazell a few years ago).
Now, Miller has to put it together. He has to bring it every night. He has to rebound and push the ball. He has to score. There's talent around him, but Miller has to be the sparkplug. For as much as he's wanted everyone else to do better, he has to be the man this year. This is his last chance. It's not time to be uncomfortable anymore. It's time for him to step up. In Jerry Carino's Five Questions, he cites the coaching staff, who says that the light bulb may have gone on for Miller. If that's true, watch out. Miller could step up in a big way.
But if Miller is the same old up and down player, the season could go the same way. Dane Miller is that important.
Austin Johnson: Johnson is another mercurial player. Well spoken, well liked, and smart, Johnson shines off the court. From all accounts, he's helped groom the younger players away from the court. On the court, however, he's always been inconsistent.
Johnson, over the years, has become a role player. He's not going to dominate the boards or score a ton of points, but he can be useful off the bench. He's got a decent hook shot and when it's going down, it can flummox bigger defenders. He's able to pull big men away from the basket and he can help out when others get into foul trouble. Johnson hustles and plays hard. That's never been his problem. Confidence has. If Johnson believes he can play, he's productive.
Now that he's a senior, Johnson has to believe. Much like Miller, this is his last chance at getting to the postseason. He has to make every effort to help the team succeed. He has to be a force on this team. That doesn't necessarily mean on the court, but he has to take advantage of his opportunities, push the younger players, and set the tone. Johnson has a role on this team, and this is the year he can fill it.