Yesterday, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh opened the final "Big East As We Know It--Sort Of" conference schedule. The game was fun to watch... an old-school grind it out battle. Cincy came out on top, becoming only the 20th game Pitt has lost in the Peterson Events Center (Hey, Rutgers is responsible for 2 of those). The game really gave some hints of what to expect for the rest of the Big East (as will tonight's UConn-Marquette match-up).
And as I watched, the first thought was this: Rutgers defense needs to get a lot better, and fast. Defense has been RU's Achilles Heel so far. Throughout most of the Out Of Conference portion of the schedule, Rutgers has struggled to shut teams down. And, up until the last 3 games, they haven't been able to force turnovers. This is the Scarlet Knights' biggest flaw, because, as good as Rutgers' offense has been, it is likely to take a step back as good teams show up.
Tomorrow night, Rutgers travels to Syracuse. And that is a challenge, to say the least. Here are my thoughts on how Rutgers can succeed:
1. Change the Starting Line-up: Rutgers needs help from the outside. They are not a 3 point shooting team, but they will likely need the 3 to have a chance to win. I would start Wally Judge, Dane Miller, Eli Carter, Jerome Seagears and Myles Mack. This line-up can certainly attack the zone. Carter can slash. Miller at the foul line can be the option to pass, shoot or drive. Seagears and Mack would be the outlets, shooting the 3. And Judge and play an integral role under the hoop.
2. Rebound: Early this year it looked like rebounding was going to be a strength of this Rutgers team. Both Judge and Kadeem Jack had the look of players who would really grab the ball with authority. The ball wouldn't touch the ground. Then Rutgers switched to zone, and it's tough to rebound out of that. To win tomorrow, Rutgers is going to have to man up and pull down that key rebound. Even with the line-up change, this is possible. The guards are quick, and should be able to box out their men. Miller has been a consistently good rebounder in the past as well. Rebounding is about positioning and desire.
3. Get Fired Up: Mike Rice is back. By all accounts in the press, the team is excited and happy about that. Now's the time to prove it. Come out, play hard and above all, play smart. Rutgers has talent, and it appeared--offensively--it was starting to come together in Rice's absence. Time to keep it up, or-even better-bring it to the next level.
4. Get Hot From the Outside: Hopefully, Myles Mack has recovered from his illness. He was shooting 50% from beyond the arc, and Rutgers is going to need that to stay in the game. He, Carter, and Seagears are going to have to score, and doing it from three point range will really help.
5. Hope Syracuse is Just a Hair Tight: The Orange have a chance to help their coach Jim Boeheim break Bobby Knight's win total and stay close to Coach K. They may come out a little tight. Rutgers can then get off to a good start and gain confidence. Syracuse will no doubt respond, but if they are a shade nervous, that can help.
-A Fair Whistle would be nice. Since Mike Rice has taken over, Rutgers never gets a call on the road. Even Ole Miss showed this.
-Rutgers basically needs to play a perfect game tomorrow. it's tough to foresee a win in upstate New York, but it's always nice to dream.
-How often will the cameras zoom in on Mike Rice's sideline actions?
Rutgers has a very tough start to the Big East schedule. Three ranked teams and St. John's on the road. In order to keep the postseason in sight, they need to win at least one of these games. But tomorrow's game you want to see signs of maturity. The team can't get into "hero mode", especially when things are going bad. Keep running the offense, keep playing smart and good things will happen.
There is a lot of pressure on Mike Rice and the Scarlet Knights this year. The Mike Rice issue. The rumored Post Season Mandate. A young team-with talent-coming together.
The fun time of the year is upon us. Enjoy.