The Rutgers men's basketball program appears to be turning a corner. There is a groundswell of positive sentiment following last night's comeback against heavily-favored Villanova. Even before then, the team was clearly showing progress, as evidenced by a series of close losses where Rutgers was victimized by a large foul disparity. The Scarlet Knights were still at the bottom of the Big East standings, but that matter of fact had more to do with the league's depth than any other factor. This year's squad was clearly much improved, but still must turn more of their close losses into wins.
Last spring Rutgers basketball was in shambles. Fred Hill was bought out following an extremely embarrassing public outburst seemingly designed to set back the program's rebuilding process years. School athletic director Tim Pernetti ended up hiring an inexperienced coach from the Northeast Conference, Mike Rice Jr., who had been passed over by Seton Hall and Fordham owing to questions about his sideline demeanor. Rice immediately shattered all comparisons to ex-Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez by cultivating relationships with the local media. Hiring quality assistants and signing seven Big East-caliber recruits bought more goodwill, but expectations were still minuscule.
Rutgers tied for 14th (with Providence) in this year's preseason Big East men's basketball poll, behind even South Florida of all teams. After all, forward-center Hamady N'Diaye was now a Washington Wizard. Shooting guard Mike Rosario had transferred away, and his intended replacement, junior college signee Tyree Graham, never played a minute this season with an ACL injury. This is a team that struggled even though Fred Hill had signed decent recruiting classes. Now they had to make due with a depleted roster, all the while seeing if Rice had the chops to make it in the Big East.
Motivating the team with the rallying cry that nobody believes in them (with innocuous Steve Politi quotes as bulletin board material) will become increasingly difficult. Rice at RMU proved in two tournament near-upsets of Villanova and Syracuse that his teams were capable of sneaking up on favorites with superior effort and a commitment to defense. Maintaining that level of intensity with heavy roster turnover next fall, and fans already debating the merits of whether Pernetti should start negotiations on a contract extension loom as far greater challenges over the long run.
If anyone was still taking Rutgers lightly as a factor in Big East play, they cannot any longer. In fact, the Scarlet Knights will be the team facing the most pressure to win this weekend when Seton Hall returns to the RAC. Early on Kevin Willard and staff look somewhat overmatched, but on paper their team roster is talented and experienced. Herb Pope could demolish RU on the glass. Dane Miller and a wrist injury combined to hamper Jeremy Hazell last month, but Hazell subsequently torched Syracuse, and almost led an upset over UConn several days back. Things will have truly changed for the better in Piscataway if Rutgers brings their A-game on Saturday, in the process extinguishing bad memories of countless past Scarlet Knight teams faltering in the face of adversity.