Back in November, I posted that this was a very big year for Mike Rice. The Scarlet Knights had to take a step forward and build on the promise they showed in the previous year. If not, the wheels could fall off, fans would lose their minds, and the press would be all over the team. They needed to find some consistency and create a reason for optimism going forward.
But they haven't.
After a horrific loss to Louisville at the RAC, my colleague wrote that there was talent on this team, and maybe another coach could take them farther.
Then the wheels really did fall off. Yesterday, Rutgers lost to bottom-feeding DePaul and lost their best scorer, Eli Carter, for the rest of the season.
Now the questions arise: Is there a postseason mandate on Mike Rice? Is the vaunted recruiting class as talented as originally reported? Will Mike Rice ever get to the NCAAs here?
Before jumping to conclusions, take a look at the pros and cons of the coach:
Defense: All of Rice's teams defend, and it's clear Rice knows how important that part of the game is. This year's team is Rice's worst defensive team over the last three years, but have been showing signs of improvement as the season has gone on. A good defensive coach will win games. Rice's players play hard on D and the switching scheme confuses a lot of opponents. When the players are jumping to the ball, Rutgers can get lots of stops. At the same time, Rice hasn't been stuck to one defense. He's willing to mix in a zone, a press and a straight up man. Mike Rice is all about getting stops, and in his three years here--for the most part--he's been able to get them.
Player Development: Jonathan Mitchell turned from a shooter into a complete player the one year he had with Rice. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack are making big jumps in their play, and could turn into all Big East players byt their senior season. Austin Johnson has become Rutgers' best interior player this year. Mike Poole has gotten better too, as the years have gone on. When players listen to Rice, they get better. The growth on the court is often extremely evident, and impressive to watch. Players are getting better, and Myles Mack's 16-4 run yesterday was one of the most exciting individual moments by a Rutgers player since Quincy Douby.
Passion: Mike Rice wants to win, will do anything to win and wants to get it done here. He's made promises he might not be able to keep, like making the NCAAs and turning Rutgers around. As a fan, it's hard not to like what Mike Rice has to say and how he shows it along the sidelines. Rice is a fiery coach, and that can work to his advantage--just look at Jim Calhoun.
The Suspension: This is the biggest problem for Mike Rice, and one that might the hardest to overcome. So many different stories have bled out of this one: Various reporters said that in order for Rice to keep his job after the suspension he had to make a post season tournament. That doesn't appear likely. At the same time, he has someone monitoring his practices and reporting to Tim Pernetti. He may take anger management classes.
Then there's the recruiting. Jermaine Lawrence, Rondae Jefferson, Tyler Roberson, Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, Rysheed Jordan, and Roddy Peters. Rice was in on all of them, and experts agreed that he would get at least one--perhaps even multiple commitments. But they all went elsewhere. Granted, some of these guys went to traditional powers in Syracuse, Villanova, and Arizona, but there appears to be a deeper problem. And Mike Rice has gotten commitments from a solid point guard in Shane Rector and an unknown in JUCO Craig Brown, but it's might not be enough to make the jump. Message board posters on Scarlet Nation have suggested the suspension comes into play. Rice and Rutgers haven't been mentioned for the 2014 class much, either. If Rice can't recruit, he's dead in the water. He had to win this year to keep momentum going, but even if he did, it appears the suspension has hurt him.
Injuries: In each of Mike Rice's three years, he's been saddled with a key injury. There aren't Rice's fault, but they've played a clear role in the progression of the team. Eli Carter went down late this year, but it's big, and will probably keep any kind of miracle finish from happening. Last year, Kadeem Jack missed nearly all of the non-conference schedule with a foot injury, after Rice had been raving about him all pre-season.
But the most important (and under reported) injury was that of Tyree Graham. Graham was a JUCO combo guard who Rice recruited soon after being hired. Word was Graham could shoot and really score. But soon after he got on campus, it was reported he had an ACL that was torn before he got to Rutgers. He missed a season. And he appared to be the piece that was missing. A team that consistently came up a few points short could have used him, and it might have been enough to push the Knights into a postseason tournament in Rice's first year. After the Fred Hill era, that would have been huge. And, once Graham healed from the ACL, he ruptured and Achilles tendon. Graham was going to be the glue to help Jerome Seagears, Mack, and Carter mature. Instead they were thrown into the fire. The Injury Gods are clearly against Mike Rice.
Team Improvement: While individuals have improved under Coach Rice, this year the team hasn't. It didn't get better last year either. Young teams across the board have had their moment this year: from Villanova's top five winning streak, to St. John's run, to Providence's current win streak. Meanwhile, Rutgers has scuffled, suffering a six game losing streak twice in the last two seasons to really suck the confidence out of the team. Yes, the schedule hasn't helped, sending Rutgers through a gauntlet, but at some point, you have to win a big game and use that to spur you on. Rutgers had two chances this year to go on a big winning streak, and wasn't able to pull it off. Combine that with long losing streaks and you're sunk.
The Offense: As good a defensive mind is, sometimes one has to wonder about Rice on offense. In his first year, the team played a *team* game. James Beatty hit threes, Mike Coburn drove, and Jonathan Mitchell did it all. Combine that with Gilvydas Biruta's back to the basket play, and Dane Miller's energy, it was fun to watch. But once those seniors graduated and the big 7 recruits came in, team play went out the window. Rutgers has relied on one player to take over. Usually it was Eli Carter, who often scores over twenty when Rutgers wins. Against DePaul, Rice reportedly told Myles Mack to take over. He scored 28, but DePaul adjusted late and kept him from scoring again. In his postgame press conferences, Rice usually talks about sharing the ball. The team hasn't done as much as they should to be successful.
So, should Mike Rice be let go?
It's very difficult to come to a conclusion here. This team is still mostly made up of sophomores, and they need time to develop. The light usually goes on for a team in their junior years. The individual improvement of players might eventually lead to the team getting better.
At the same time, if Rice hangs around even for another year, what happens to the program? Recruiting might dry up, and when the Mack class graduates, Rice--or the next coach--will be starting completely over. Steve Lavin, Norm Roberts and St. John's are a good example. Instead of firing Roberts when his big recruiting class were going into their junior years, they kept him one more year. When Lavin came over, he had to recruit an entire new team, and while they've shown a ton of promise, Lavin wasn't able to create a consistent team. He made the NCAAs in his first year, and has dealt with inconsistency since.
Either way, it's amazing how quickly the good will toward Rice has gone out the window. And there is only a short amount of time left to gain it back.