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Talking basketball

RU Men's Basketball tips off with an exhibition against Caldwell at the RAC on November 10th. To give you an idea of how much of a basketball fan I am, I had to look that date up. It's up in the air how much basketball content will be here in coming months. If you're looking for in-depth coverage, read a newspaper, or visit Carino's blog, ZAGSBLOG, or the Big Beast. There's a very, very high probability that this preview will contain some crucial error owing to me missing a critical piece of news reported during the offseason.

That's a little ironic actually, because, a while back, I actually had a lot more access to RU basketball than I ever did to football, even though I didn't take much interest in it. I can vividly recall listening to Jim Carr badmouth a player for five minutes, and then switch gears when that person entered the room. In conclusion to this tangent, let me just add that I have a very, very low opinion of Gary Waters. I sincerely want Fred Hill and the current staff to succeed.

A decade ago, could anyone really have expected the day when Rutgers fans would have a high opinion of their football program, but basketball would be considered a black eye on the athletic department? The BB program has had several near misses since then, but it has not made the NCAA Tournament since 1991; apparently, only Oregon State has had a longer drought among Big Six conference teams. Since the tail end of the Bob Wenzel era, Rutgers men's basketball has been the victim of a combination of terrible decision making and a string of bad luck. The former removes any chance of overcoming the latter. Entering the 2008-2009 season, is there any semblance of hope?

Yes and no. Preseason hyperbole has a tendency to go a little overboard, but there is absolutely no doubt that the 16-team Big East is deeper and stronger than ever on paper heading into this coming season. Rutgers is entering year three of the (sans-Quincy Douby) Fred Hill era, and its fanbase is going restless and anxious to see results. Remember, it was in year three that Greg Schiano reached 5-7 and flirted with going .500. As strong as the Big East this year, the fans absolutely need to see a competitive team if there is going to be any chance of luring them back to the now suddenly quiet RAC.

In another parallel with football, the New Jersey/New York area is considered very talent-rich for basketball; in fact, while football's talent level is merely ok compared to bigger states and the South, NYC/NJ is without a doubt the Mecca of the High School basketball world. Rutgers does not need to keep every blue chipper home, and indeed, that would be nigh impossible and set completely unrealistic expectations. Still, there should be more than enough remaining talent to build a Big East contender.

Fred Hill has sold himself as the "basketball Schiano" - the right man to convince enough quality locals to stay home and build a winner. Like Schiano, there have been some bumps in the road in the early going. Hill was a decorated assistant in stops at Seton Hall and Villanova, and was lured to the banks after Villanova went on a scintillating NCAA tournament run with one of the most exciting offenses in the country.

I think if you bring in classes like the '05 or '07 ones every year, with one potential star, and two potential contributors, that should be enough to be in the middle of the pack in the Big East. Unfortunately, the '06 class only had one player, and that likely contributed to RU's struggles over the past two years.

As a fan, I don't even really want to see the '05 Wildcats in the RAC. I'm more interested in something like Pitt under Howland/Dixon (who have a couple stars, but live and die by four-year contributors), or the Rutgers Women under C. Vivian Stringer. Both teams play a bruising, in-your-face defensive game that physically imposes their will on opposing teams. To me, that style just screams "Big East" or "Jersey". I want a tough, hardnosed team that leaves it all on the floor, and makes the conference seriously consider bringing back the 6-foul limit.

I don't think I'm alone in that sentiment; despite the fact that he's probably the most physically gifted player on the team, forward Gerald "J.R." Inman faced by far the most scrutiny of any player last season. Not only did his statistics not markedly improve from 2006-2007 (yikes, look at that free throw percentage), but, rightly or wrongly, he is scapegoated as a "soft" player that doesn't always contribute with 100% effort. I think due to the lack of quality big men on the roster last year, he was a little overextended in trying to guard Big East bigs, but there's also a lot of validity to the criticism. On the plus side, Inman did seem to finally show something in the final game of the season against Seton Hall last year, nailing a clutch three-pointer to secure the final victory. Inman is suspended for an unspecified length of time to start the 2008-2009 season, along with Jaron Griffin.

Hill is likely to employ a three-guard lineup this season if only to get RU's best players on the court. When healthy, that's probably shot-blocking specialist Hamady N'Diaye playing half a game at center, Inman, slashing guard Corey Chandler (the team's #2 scoring threat behind Inman), combo guard Anthony Farmer, and possibly incoming freshman guard Mike Rosario. A close sixth in minutes played will likely be forward Jaron Griffin (depending on matchups of course), followed by incoming freshman power forward Greg Echenique, and backup PG Mike Rosario.

Backup guard Earl Pettis will see increased minutes with the two early suspensions, and his role going forward will probably depend on how he looks in that role against the early OOC slate. Rutgers has two other incoming freshmen in PF Christian Morris and wing Pat Jackson. Morris will provide sorely needed frontcourt depth in time. However, he doesn't come with Echenique's press clippings, and supposedly has some conditioning issues to work out. Jackson could push for minutes early, but I think he'll play more next season. Rutgers also has Florida-transfer Jon Mitchell sitting out the season as per NCAA regulations.

A starting five of N'Diaye/Echenique/Mitchell/Chandler/Coburn in 2009, with Rosario playing starter's minutes as the sixth man sounds good on paper, but it's very far away at this point. Honestly, if Rivals and Scout are to be believed, there is a lot of talent on the current Rutgers basketball roster, even if there should have been more players in N'Diaye's class. The fact that Inman and Griffin seemed to backslide last year was a major source of puzzlement and confusion. They should not have been as bad as they were.

What is realistic to expect in the coming season? On any fan's wishlist: a top 12 finish in conference, finishing above Seton Hall and St. John's in the BE conference standings, making the NIT, and making the RAC a feared place for visitors once again. Looking at the OOC schedule, there's a sure loss at North Carolina of the worst OOC slates that I've ever seen, even though it's probably ideal for giving the team momentum and confidence as they enter conference play. An overall winning record would be nice, as would a winning record in BE games at the RAC, and knocking at the door of .500 in conference play.

Will they do it? There are way, way too many variables to make any sort of educated guess. If Hill can show that he can do more than recruit, and if Inman comes back with a vengeance, they'll be in good shape. If not, then at least we'll get to see a lot of Echenique, Chandler, and Rosario. RU lost center Byron Joynes and backup PG Courtney Nelson off last year's squad. On paper, they should be much improved. Problem is, so is the rest of the conference.

As for the Rutgers women, I must confess to being a total, complete bandwagon fan. I'll go out on a limb and predict that CVS's squad will once again be really, really good. And that Geno will say something extremely aggravating, and not in the way that you secretly admire his competitive fire like I do with Bobby Gonzalez.