Brendan Prunty covers college hoops for the Star Ledger. His Twitter feed and news articles are extremely insightful. If you're a college hoops fan, he's one of the best to follow. He graciously took a few minutes out of his schedule to answer a couple of questions about Rutgers Hoops' past and future:
OTB: The big story right now is Gilvydas Biruta's transfer. Any idea what happened? Gil never seemed to really get it going this season.
BP: As far as Biruta's transfer, I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I get the feeling he didn't think he meshed well enough with the guards that Mike Rice brought in and may have gotten self-conscious about his play. Gilvydas is an extremely prideful player, who places a great deal of importance on his preparation and execution on the court. We could see at times this season that he didn't know how to handle being "the big guy" on the floor with 3-4 smaller guards around him. That's why he began to slip away from the basket and play more on the perimeter, because that's where the shots were. If I had to guess, I'd say that he began to wonder if he fit in Rice's system anymore and almost talked himself out of being an important cog here. Just speculation, but he wouldn't be the first college player to talk himself out of a good thing.
More after the jump...OTB: Is this a big red flag for Mike Rice in his 2nd year? Or do you think this is just a bump in the road?
BP: I think it's a bump in the road, in the long run. Look, it's not great that after what we all can agree was a fairly rocky second season on the floor for Rice, a high-profile player leaves the program. It's what has done every previous coach at Rutgers in -- transfers. But unlike his predecessors, Rice has talent waiting in the wings. There's Wally Judge, who can be an impact player from Day 1 and the two other bigs -- Greg Lewis and Derrick Randall. We saw enough from them at times this season to buy into the notion that by their junior year, Rutgers could have a nice cadre of bigs. Make no mistake though: Losing Biruta is a big loss. The guy has just about the biggest desire to win of any player I've covered in five years at Rutgers. The type of guy who'd run through a brick wall, build it back up and then do it again if you told him to. In terms of team focus, that might be the toughest thing to replace.
OTB: Rice now has an open scholarship. Last year, when a scholarship opened up around this time, Rice found Eli Carter. Can coach do it again? What kind of player do you think he's looking for?
BP: If I had to pin a prototype player for that scholarship, it'd be a scoring wing-type player. Rutgers really lacks that on this roster. Carter is too small (as are Seagears and Mack); Jack has the potential -- but only close to the basket; and Poole is too streaky. I'd bet Rice is looking for someone in the physical mold of a Dominic Cheek, but a better scorer. Rondae Jefferson (brother of Temple's Rahlir Jefferson) is a name to watch. He's a very polished scorer from all accounts and at 6-6, 195 pounds would give Rice the size at the SF spot to give him a more complete lineup in 2-3 years.
OTB: Back to the previous season. What went right this year? What went wrong?
BP: That's an easy one: The freshmen and the freshmen. In the 30-plus games this season we saw just how talented this group can be and just how far they still have to come. Beating Florida, UConn, Cincinnati and Notre Dame showed what type of players Rice has brought in, because it's rare that a Rutgers team has beaten and competed with programs with superior talent. But the other side of the coin were the absolutely atrocious games that we saw this team roll out. Losing to Villanova twice? The no-shows against West Virginia? Sleepers against DePaul, Providence and Louisville? Far too much black-and-white for a team that hopes to be competing for an NCAA Tournament bid soon. I still think it'll come, but it might just be a bit longer than folks expected.
OTB: What has to happen for Rutgers to be postseason bound next year? (Even if it's the NIT.)
BP: This group needs to learn how to play more "together" basketball. That means Dane Miller being comfortable with being the focus player (he doesn't have to score 20 a game, but needs to be more assertive); Eli Carter realizing that he can't be taking a high number of shots if the offense wants to be balanced; Jerome Seagears and Myles Mack figuring out how they want to play the point; and Judge keeping the personal problems that plagued him at Kansas State out of the way. The talent is there, no question. But Rutgers needs to put it together up top. I think it would take an incredible collision of events to reach the NCAAs, but the NIT is certainly not out of the question. Personally, I think the goal for Rutgers should be a winning record overall and at least 7-8 wins in the Big East this year. Regardless of a postseason, if Rutgers can get those two check-marked, fans should feel very good about 2013-14.
OTB: Is Mike Rice the guy to finally break the curse and get the Scarlet Knights to the NCAAs?
BP: I've said this from Day 1 of the Mike Rice tenure: If he can't do it at Rutgers, no one is going to. Rice has been exactly what this program needed at its darkest moment -- someone who stepped in with a huge amount of energy and didn't mind turing a doormat program into a winner. Now, does he have warts? Absolutely. (The screaming and yelling at players isn't a problem for me -- watch college basketball for one season and show me a coach who isn't constantly screaming at his players. You can't.) I think Rice was a little too slow in noticing and correcting the chemistry problem on the floor this season and this team got behind the 8-ball in some games because of it. But there are few coaches who are grinding it out like Rice does. What most people don't know was that following the Florida game, Rice placed phone calls to a number of Rutgers recruits, basically saying: "Hey, did you see what happened tonight? We want you to be a part of that." You'd have to think that the extra work and prep on and off the court is going to pay off at some point here.