It’s been a long road for Rutgers men’s basketball. A program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 has seen more lows than highs during that time. But there was one squad that lives joyously in the memories of Rutgers hoops fans.
Twelve years ago, third-year head coach Gary Waters put together a team that was squarely on the bubble for most of the season, and had a magical run through the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), reaching the final at Madison Square Garden.
In honor of this run, and the newfound optimism in the modern basketball program, uber RU hoops fan and former RVision announcer Danny Breslauer and I decided reach out to as many people as possible to compile their memories of one of the last truly fun basketball seasons.
Our panel consists of Breslauer and others around the program that season. They include former Rutgers forward Justin Piasecki, assistant coach Larry DeSimpelare, men’s hoops sports information director John Beisser, radio play-by-play announcer Bruce Johnson, current Court Club President Brian Kelley and superstar freshman guard Quincy Douby.
Told over three parts, this is the Oral History of the 2003-2004 Rutgers men’s basketball team. So grab a coffee and settle in.
ORAL HISTORY OF 2003-2004 Rutgers MBB Season: Part 1 of 3 - Prelude and Out of Conference
1) 2001-2002 revisited: In his first year, Gary Waters stepped into a team that wasn't expected to do much and, in fact, lost its first two games to East Carolina and VCU. But once Waters and company returned to the RAC, Jerome Coleman got hot and the team was one of the most exciting Rutgers squads in recent memory. What was it about this team that stood out for you? How did it change expectations for the Waters era going forward?
Larry DeSimpelare: Great year for us. Some really nice talent. Some of the most dysfunctional home lives and circumstances I had seen within the guys on our team. Great individual young men who had survived a lot. Their resiliency showed up a lot in those difficult games. Learned a lot about a very dysfunctional culture that was present. Jerome and Rashod were incredible for the year. Ricky (Shields) was really good at times as a frosh. This year was really awesome, but not signing kids in the fall, hurt us in the long run. Spring recruiting is a little bit of a crapshoot in those days (today, you can aid any mistakes or misses with 5th year and transfers).... But there are great ones at times too....as Jerome (Coleman) was an April signee when we arrived. Beating 4 top 25 teams and the RAC rocking....that was fun! Pretty fun first year, but it only helped hide the dysfunction that was there and it would come out in year 2!
John Beisser: I do remember the beginning part of Coach Waters’ first season pretty well. It was not long after 9/11 and there was a tragic plane crash in Queens a few days before the trip. A few of the players’ parents called Coach Waters concerned about safety. So, we ended up taking a bus, like nine hours.
Lost the first two in front of ZERO people. NC State’s beautiful new arena was so empty, from the scorer’s table, we could hear the motor of the rotating signs above midcourt as the sponsors changed. Weird setting.
Was great seeing Jim Carr, who some may forget, was at FDU for a year or so, during his otherwise long tenure at RU. Weird seeing Jimmy on another bench. He remains perhaps the funniest person on the planet and a close friend.
Herve (Lamizana) wasn’t eligible for about the first third of the season, which was frustrating as everyone was excited to finally see him take the court.
That whole season, despite the loss to Yale in the NIT, had a "feel-good" vibe to it following the tumultuous end to the Bannon era. The players really bought into Coach Waters and his staff. Rashod (Kent) was in a good place, and it translated into his becoming a double-double machine. Herve showed glimpses of what he would become but when I think of that year, really the first two years, I think of Jerome Coleman.
Hard to believe a deep-shooting 16.8 ppg guard was available in the spring. As you well know, nothing gets the RAC going like the three-ball. Jerome and Ricky had it going. [Ricky was] later to be joined by Quincy (Douby), wow. Loud and explosive. Amazing the amount of ranked teams we beat in the Waters era, including eventual NCAA champion Syracuse and Carmelo.
Expectations? Yeah, that season raised them and the next year was tough but after the way things went down at the end there with Bannon, it was a deep exhale.
Brian Kelley: Janet and I were at the first games of the Waters era down in Raleigh, NC at the BCA Invitational. The ECU and VCU losses were tough to swallow at the time, but even that early you could see that the Coleman/Kent/Shields trio (later to be joined by Lamizana mid-season) was going to be where the bread was buttered. By the time we played our 3rd game in that tourney beating FDU in OT in front of a crowd of literally 6 people (Coach D’s wife, GW’s wife, Janet and I…plus 2 guys that had wandered in), there was a sense in my mind that once we got home, things would be different. After a couple of nice wins at the RAC, we went on the road and blew out a LaSalle team that featured Rasual Butler. That’s where things really started to gel.
EFFORT! This team hustled, hit the floor, worked very, very hard to get the most out of what it had. It really took on the identity of its head coach that way. The season Jerome Coleman had will be forever etched in time as one of the greatest stories for Rutgers Basketball, but key contributions from the likes of Mike Sherrod and Sean Axani shouldn’t be overlooked. Upset wins against likes of Miami, Notre Dame, Syracuse and UConn brought fans back to the RAC in droves, and the team took full advantage. The season ended prematurely though, with the team losing its last 4 games, including in the BET vs. BC, and then in the NIT at home vs. Yale, which featured a very odd placement of the Yale band on the opposite side of section 118, within just a few feet of the RU bench.
Obviously, most fans were very excited about the future. Gary Waters was by no means the first choice for this job, but by the end of the 2001/02 season, very few doubted he was the right one.
Bruce Johnson: What stood out to me about the team and season was that Rutgers basketball was relevant again in the wake of the inferior teams under Bob Wenzel when the Scarlet Knights entered the Big East AND the dysfunctional teams in the final years of the Kevin Bannon era that ended with the unfulfilled potential of many quality recruits. The 01-02 season validated the hiring of Gary Waters, showing Scarlet Knight fans that the new head coach had a legitimate shot at succeeding on "the Banks"…much like he did at Kent State. (RU fans remembered the way Waters' Golden Flashes buzz-sawed the Knights in the NIT two seasons before.) Despite a tough loss to Boston College in the opening round, Waters was able to get his first Rutgers team into the Big East Tournament, something that Bannon was not able to do in his final two seasons. Remember that was a BIG deal back in the days when not every team qualified for the league tournament. For RU not to go to Madison Square Garden was a punch in the gut for Scarlet Knight fans.
Justin Piasecki: When Waters was hired, they hired a therapist, Dr. Carr. He came in over the summer. The team spent 12-14 hours days doing team-building exercises. It helped to break down the barriers so everyone could learn to trust each other. It was one of the main reasons why they had a great year in Waters’ first year. Throughout that season, Carr would spend days with us and was sometimes on the bench.
2) 2002-2003 revisited: Waters' second season wasn't as good as the first. On a team dealing with chemistry issues, and missing Rashod Kent, they faltered out of the gate and missed the Big East Tournament. That off-season was a whirlwind of roster moves, from some members of the team being asked to leave to incredible recruiting stories like Quincy Douby, landing a point guard in Antwi Atuahene and then losing him and the push for Darryl Watkins. That off-season was chaotic that it really tempered expectations for the 2003-04 season. What were your expectations looking toward 2003-04?
DeSimpelare: We had signed some kids late and they were the classic "late" type. Most did not work out..Calvin Wooten could have been really good, but being a roommate with someone who was certainly "marred" by so much personal loss and pain, had too drastic of an effect. Only AD (forward Adrian Hill's nickname) made it through his years at Rutgers. And he was a BEAST! Still one of my favorite kids. It also was a special year for one of the best young men in our program....Kareem Wright! We may have made a mistake the year earlier by not redshirting Kareem, but give him credit, he saw an opportunity and seized it! Worked hard and got in great shape. Gained confidence and was really a great leader....everyone loved ‘Reem! We had some injuries and we had to let a player go....but beating Syracuse in the RAC and then watch them win it all was amazing. It shows how valuable each game is and how important it is to play at your best when your best is needed. This was one of our most frustrating years as the success of the year before may have affected our chemistry.
Kelley: There wasn’t really a lot added to the roster in 2002/03, and with the loss of Kent and the other roster attrition, we were very guardable all of a sudden. A couple of games really stick out to me about this season, first and foremost being the road loss to UNC in the preseason NIT. Janet and I watched from the floor as RU let a double digit lead slip away with 7 minutes left against a Tarheel team that featured 3 long time NBA players. Lamizana and Shields each notched 20, but with Coleman ice cold at just 2-18, it just wasn’t to be. After that, Todd Billet’s return to the RAC with his Virginia team left yet another sour taste in my mouth…thank God we never saw those wretched silver home uniforms again after that night! Still, beating the likes of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Georgetown made the season somewhat memorable, and the fact that the RAC seemed like it was sold out every night made for fun winter evenings despite the losses in league. Janet and I traveled up to Syracuse for the first time as the season ended, in what turned out to be Carmelo Anthony’s last game at home for SU in front of a then record crowd of 33K plus. We’ve always called it Kareem Wright’s senior night. 4-12 in the league didn’t warm anyone’s heart…but the kids never stopped playing hard. Still, now we were losing Coleman to graduation, and despite his senior slump, we all kind of knew that could be a problem moving into 2003/2004. Little did we know the impact that guys like Marquis Webb and Quincy Douby would have way back when.
3) 2003-2004: The out of conference schedule is when you usually start to learn about the nuts and bolts of that season's team. What are some of your memories of the 2003-2004 out of conference part of this schedule? What were your expectations?
Quincy Douby: I didn’t have many expectations heading into freshman year. I went into it knowing I had to earn whatever I was going to get. I was kind of a sleeper, only played two years of organized high school basketball. I didn’t go in there expecting to be a star from the start. I wanted to show the coaches that I appreciated the opportunity for a scholarship, to play at Rutgers and in the Big East.
I had a fractured pinky and torn meniscus that whole season. I thought I was going to redshirt. I could tape up the pinky but the meniscus, we almost got surgery. The staff said it wasn’t a severe tear and I could play with it. So I just threw a knee brace on it, that old one-leg sleeve to keep the leg warm. I suited up, never made an excuse and never missed any games.
I had to earn the green light from Coach Waters. When you’re in practice not missing a shot and going at the upperclassmen, his main thing was still defense and I showed him that. I gained the opportunity, at first I barely started or played. By midseason, he fully gave me that trust and let me play my game. He said whenever I’m open, shoot. I appreciate Coach Waters because he made me earn everything. He always told me that if I didn’t play defense, I wouldn’t play in the game no matter how many shots I made.
DeSimpelare: We did believe we could be good. We had a very solid and talented class coming in. We had a pretty good returning group. We lost some "cancerous" types and roles were more easily defined. Coach also did his best recruiting job to keep Ax. In today's market, Ax would have been a 5th year transfer and most certainly could have played anywhere in the country. He was key because he was the unselfish and gifted leader this young team needed. We also stayed healthy and Q started to show us how we could be good. The beginning of a really solid recruiting class. We tried really hard to land Andrew Bynum....but he had too good of a summer and was.... REALLY GOOD!
As with all new kids, you never really knew who would be as good as advertised, but with Q becoming the player he was, along with Ricky, Juel, and of course, Herve, we needed some added production and Q gave it. Came off the bench and gave us 10 a game. These kids all got along much better and got better every game. You could see and sense the growth. Plus we only had Ax as a senior and he was the undisputed leader. And he was selfless! He did a great job!
Marquis Webb turned out to be extremely reliable as a point guard and one of the most versatile players we had. And also an unbelievable teammate! He also gave us the controlled player who always displayed calmness and he truly got better every game. He was as special in his own right as Q!
Piasecki: I’m surprised QD played through the pinky [but as the season went on he] gained confidence. Confidence is everything, especially with shooters.
Johnson: As mentioned above, not going to the BET was a huge disappointment for Rutgers. However, the only significant roster loss from that sub-500 team in 02-03 was leading scorer Jerome Coleman…and there was a decent nucleus coming back including Herve Lamizana and Ricky Shields plus the promise of an outstanding recruiting class. Although some of those recruits didn't make it to RU, the addition of freshman Quincy Douby and Marquis Webb did heighten expectations for 03-04. I definitely saw a shot for the Scarlet Knights to make it back to the Big East Tournament AND the NIT.
Kelley: Everyone was happy with the returning cast, Axani and Lamizana were seniors, Adrian Hill and Juel Wiggan were coming on, and Shields was an established offensive force, but it was the new blood that really got me excited. Quincy Douby was the marquee name, having had the rep as a big time scorer, but I recall that Marquis Webb may have been the perceived more important recruit…being a high profile guy from a powerful NJ HS program. So many people forget that Byron Joynes was also a part of this class and gave us 15-20 minutes a night.
Beisser: I felt really good heading into year three under Gary. Quincy was an exciting recruit and you had Ricky and Herve, plus Calvin Wooten had shown some promise as a freshman, so there was a good deal of optimism.
I don’t really remember much about the Lafayette game, Wisconsin I missed due to, I think a wedding if I recall. Remember taping it (TiVo I believe? Google it) and watching it "plausibly live" at home later that night. Really strange for me to not be there.
Temple was obviously a good win and LIU, it’s always good to head into the break on an up note. Northwestern/UTEP was strange. I remember the games were at night, really late on the east coast, no TV if I remember. Which was a good thing obviously as far as the UTEP game. They really took it to us. The Northwestern win was a decent one, they were always a pain to play with Carmody.
At Penn State was a solid win, all road wins are. My first trip to the Bryce Jordan Center, I believe. I remember walking through the bowels of the building during shoot-a-round, finding like their ‘Green Room’ where the Springsteens, etc. would change, when they were in town for concerts. I’d do the same thing at Georgetown (MCI Center then?) and other pro-type venues. Jim Carr, Vin Parise, John Wooding and myself all HUGE Springsteen fans. We converted LD somewhere along the way. Great times.
Bryce Jordan Center? Beautiful, plush, EMPTY arena…probably 6,000 seats too many. They should have built something like Pitt did years later, 12,000, maybe 10,000, in my opinion. (I have all the answers, right? Ha!).
I also remember Bruce Johnson calling the two games at UTEP solo, not sure where Dick was. I remember going up to Bruce on the trip out, trying to let convince him to let me do color for the two games, maybe rekindle by WRSU days…to no avail…Bruce had no interest in putting me on the air!
Let's talk about some specific 2003-2004 OOC games (general thoughts, memories, impressions).
How the 2003-2004 season tipped off…
Rutgers 71 Lafayette 65, November 22, 2003 – Piscataway, NJ
DeSimpelare: Tough game! Probably deserved to lose. Press saved us! Should have lost....but....
Breslauer: As far as season openers go, this was pretty forgettable. I remember the first two openers of the Waters era very well… the game at the Black Coaches Association tournament in Raleigh in ‘01-‘02 and Columbia at the RAC in the Preseason NIT in ‘02-‘03. Four in double figures, led by Douby’s 17 in his first game at Rutgers… but a typical, November slop-fest.
Kelley: Matter of fact wins vs. Lafayette and Buffalo barely hinted at the amazing things that were coming. Douby dropped 17 points in the opener…he followed that up with 4 turnovers and zero points against the Bulls.
Johnson: Always hard to get excited about an opener with mid-major Lafayette…and after only a six-point win, there already was some of that famous "doubt" for Scarlet Knight fans.
Following the win over Lafayette, Rutgers would play another contest at the RAC, defeating Buffalo 78-53 behind 22 points from Ricky Shields and a monster line from Sean Axani (10 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals and 5 blocks). At 2-0, Rutgers then traveled to its first major conference opponent.
Wisconsin 55 Rutgers 43, November 29, 2003 – Madison, WI
DeSimpelare: Had a chance. They were good, well coached and disciplined. Very tough place to play!!! But similar to Temple, UW plays a deliberate style. You stay in the game, but hard to get a win!
Breslauer: I was a delusional 15-year-old Rutgers fan then… and many believe I’m still a delusional nearly 28-year-old RU fan now. For some reason, I felt really good heading into this one, maybe because the Scarlet Knights had looked better vs. Buffalo than Lafayette. Not entirely irrational on my part as it was 21-19 Wisconsin in Madison at the break. It was a perfectly Bo Ryan game. Nothing special, Devin Harris drops 18 and only Lamizana hits double figures for RU. Definitely a coming down-to-earth, 43-point performance.
Kelley: Had this game been played in mid-December, the outcome could have been different. We just weren’t ready for a solid Devin Harris led Badger team on the road. Personally, this game had significance I couldn’t imagine back then. Until this past season’s matchup against Minnesota, it was the last road game Rutgers basketball played that I did not attend in person…a streak that lasted over 12 years. Don’t worry though…we’ve already started the next one!
Johnson: Tough road game. Devin Harris was a future NBA player and he had a good game against RU. In my many years as Scarlet Knight play-by-play man, I would chalk it up as "another comfortable loss"---not good enough to win, but good enough not to be embarrassed.
Rutgers 77 Temple 67, December 3, 2003 – Piscataway, NJ
DeSimpelare: Awesome game. One of our toughest. We always had good fortune against Temple. And these were always battles!!!
Breslauer: You don’t often hold onto memories from a 10-point home win in December, but for some reason I knew Rutgers would see Temple again that year somewhere… NIT, NCAA, I didn’t know… but that David Hawkins-Mardy Collins duo really impressed me. It was just REALLY hard to beat Rutgers that year when Douby and Shields shot 50 percent from deep… and they went 7-for-14 that day.
Kelley: Honestly, this game is really only notable for the W, Douby went 7 for 11, and the fact that Piasecki finally got to take a shot (he missed). Love ya JP!
Johnson: Good o-o-c win for Rutgers over a solid Temple team led by Mardy Collins and David Hawkins. What I really remember about it was that, in my mind, it was the first time that Douby put his imprint on a game, shooting 7-11 and scoring 21 points.
The Temple win sent Rutgers on a December tear, but not before a weird scenario unfolded. A blizzard hit Central New Jersey on Dec. 6, forcing the postponement of a home game against Monmouth to Jan. 13. Once the snow was cleared, RU took a ride through Pennsylvania and topped Penn State 60-47 in Happy Valley, using 17 points each from Shields and Douby. Three days later, the Scarlet Knights held off pesky Princeton 51-49 in Piscataway in a game that went down to the final seconds. Shields was the only RU player in double figures with 13 points, but the Scarlet Knights held Princeton to 5-for-21 from 3-point range. After a week off, the final out-of-conference of December hit the calendar.
Rutgers 80 LIU 54, December 20, 2003 – Piscataway, NJ
Breslauer: I don’t think I have heard an arena with 4,800 in it get so loud. This was like one big party 5 days before Christmas. The students were on their last day or two of finals… and Rutgers was really hitting its stride. 80-54 win, 6-1 record and SIX players in double figures. I mean, Axani, Wiggan AND Joynes in double figures – I have to think that’s the only time those three cracked 10 in the same game that year, maybe ever. I will never forget the students in the final minute… chanting "We want UConn," which was the first home game after the New Year. Classic.
Kelley: This mismatch got us to 6-1 heading down to El Paso. A remarkable 6 Scarlet Knights hit double figures. I remember really feeling good about guys like Wiggan and Joynes tasting some success…they turned out to be key pieces in this puzzle. Oh, and Piasecki scored!
Johnson: Nothing much to remember from this game other than a blow-out win.
Following the LIU win, Rutgers would celebrate the Christmas holiday before heading south to El Paso, Texas for the Sierra Providence SunClassic Basketball Tournament at UTEP. The host Miners came in at 7-1 and dispatched Mississippi Valley State by 21 in their semifinal contest. Big Ten opponent Northwestern entered the tournament at 5-4 and drew Rutgers in game one.
Rutgers 80 Northwestern 75, December, 27, 2003 – El Paso, TX
Breslauer: I always think about the technical pregame. I was out in Chicago visiting family, and it was the early days of internet radio. We hooked up my uncle’s computer to WCTC or WOR and found the Bruce Johnson-Dick Lloyd call. Bruce was amped after some Northwestern player dunked during warmups and got a technical, so RU led early. Lamizana was incredible (21pts, 15rebs, 5blks) and Shields dropped 24 with 4 treys. Really, really nice win… and I mean, at 7-1, I was giddy. Well, until the following night of course.
Kelley: Ah, The Sierra Providence SunClassic Basketball Tournament! This set of games provided moments that we still remember today very vividly, but not for the reasons you might think. Northwestern was just an OK team, but it was easily the best squad we had faced up to that point in the season. Nobody scared you on that team, except for a center named Vedran Vukusic, your typical Northwestern Euro post player. Man were those uniforms they wore PURPLE! The UTEP-heavy crowd rooted fairly strongly against us, but we took an 8 point halftime lead and turned it into a solid W, with Shields and Lamizana doing most of the damage. 7-1 felt really good that night as we enjoyed our night out in west Texas, but that was all to come crashing down the next evening….in a big way.
Johnson: First of all, I remember the LONGGGGGG trip to El Paso. Hard to believe that it's a two-and-a-half connecting flight from Dallas to that part of Western Texas! Then, when you get there, it's like landing at Baghdad Airport….just one big sandstorm! The first round game at Northwestern was a tough, exciting overtime game, although it probably didn't help RU's stamina in the title game the next night against host UTEP. Ricky Shields poured in 24 points and Herve Lamizana had a double-double, 21 points and 15 rebounds.
UTEP 94 Rutgers 68, December 28, 2003 – El Paso, TX
DeSimpelare: Gary always fared well against Princeton type teams [like Northwestern]. Disappointed we got shelled against UTEP! 14,000 foot-stompin’ Cowboys were too much!!! Lol.
Breslauer: If Wisconsin was a "bring you down to earth" game, this was a "destroy your worldview" event. Down 20 before you could blink, 48-13 at the half, Haskins Center louder than the radio feed. I mean, it was deafening. This team did not get beat-down often, but wow, 94 points, six players in double figures… it was a rout that really only Lamizana showed up to play in. Not exactly the taste you wanted heading into New Year’s or BIG EAST play.
Kelley: UTEP was a very quiet 8-1 to Big East fans. We watched as they dispatched Mississippi Valley State the night before, but weren’t all that impressed. But man, we should have been! As our game tipped off, the crowd came alive…and before we knew it, RU was looking at a 16-0 deficit before Douby hit a jumper to break the egg. The halftime score was UTEP 48- Rutgers 13. That was all she wrote. Though the final score was a forgettable 26 point loss, two words are forever tattooed upon my brain from that night….MINER BALL! Every change of possession to UTEP the entire game signaled the enthusiastic on-court announcer to utter those two words in the most gratingly annoying way possible, which in turn triggered the sell-out crowd at the Don Haskins center to do the same. Any Rutgers basketball fan, player, employee or coach in attendance that night cannot ever, EVER forget MINER BALL! Still, I have to admit to being a little jealous of that passion for their team…and RU was no slouch at the time in that department back at the RAC.
Johnson: That [Northwestern victory] put the Scarlet Knights at 7-1 but it all came crashing down in a 94-68 blowout against the Miners. It was the epitome of "being ambushed." UTEP led big from the get-go. It also was the beginning of a three-game losing streak at the beginning of the new year.
Tomorrow, check back with On the Banks for a look at the Big East Conference portion of the schedule.