Rice gets to coach.
The lightly-regarded Scarlet Knights open their season tonight at Princeton (7 o'clock tip) amid excitement about the program given Rice's ability to sign an unprecedented top 10 class, but also with very little expectations in the immediacy because of dearth of talent, not to mention players.
"My teams usually improve and get better as the year progresses, so we're as ready as we're going to be," said Rice, who was 73-31 in three seasons at Robert Morris. "They're giving effort. It's not consistent enough for me right now, but they're giving effort. That, I guess, is all you can ask for."
Nevertheless, the players who lived through a 15-17 mark last season, the uncertainty of former coach Fred Hill's status, the transfers of star players Greg Echenique (Creighton) and Mike Rosario (Florida), the eventual severing of ties with Hill and the search for a new coach are ready to get on the court.
"None of us expected that to happen at the end of the year," Rutgers senior power forward Jonathan Mitchell said. "Things happen and you have to move forward. I think as a whole we did a great job of handling the situation. There's a lot of negativity that was brought upon us, and hopefully it will help us during the season.
"We've been through the trials and tribulations. Now it's time to play, to do what we came here to do. Hopefully, we can move forward and win some games."
Still, despite the desire to win and a willingness to compete hard in practice each day while adapting to Rice's up-tempo, defense-first approach, the Scarlet Knights enter Jadwin Gym as seven-point underdogs.
And for good reason.
There are many criticisms aimed at the Scarlet Knights:
- Rebounding and defense were bugaboos a year ago, and Rutgers needs to prove this season things will be different. Rice told ScarletReport.com in September the Scarlet Knights were "not instinctive defensive players," and he has drilled them hard on defense throughout the preseason.
- They have no true center, which means 6-foot-8 freshman Gilvydas Biruta, who is more comfortable on the perimeter, will have to play inside. He is penciled in as the starting center while sophomore Austin Johnson, who is listed at 6-8, will also play significant minutes at center.
"(Biruta) is the best rebounder we have," Rice said. "Even though he's not very consistent yet with his decision making when he's on the floor, he plays with tremendous effort and heart."
- A lack of inside scoring. Mitchell averaged 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season, but shot 40.2 percent from the field. He worked on getting to the basket and rebounding in the offseason, and needs to show the work paid off.
- Sophomore wing Dane Miller is physically gifted, but he turned the ball over nearly three times a game in 2009-10 and has yet to show a consistent jump shot. He averaged 9.2 points per game last season, but shot 27.9 percent from 3-point range.
- The backcourt lacks a pure scorer. Senior point guard James Beatty likes to push the ball, but he is a pass-first player who is being instructed to shoot more. The loss of junior college transfer Tyree Graham to a knee injury took away a pure shooter.
- Depth is not there. Rutgers has nine scholarship players available, and Rice likes to use 10 or 11 players in his rotation. It means not only will Biruta log heavy minutes, but freshman guards Mike Poole and Austin Carroll will also play a lot.
"We'll use Mike and Austin in short doses," Rice said. "Gilvydas doesn't have that. He's got to play 20, 25 minutes because of where we're at."
In the exhibition game against McGill, it meant walk-on Charlie Rigoglioso played significant minutes.
The shortcomings explain why the Scarlet Knights were picked to finish 15th in the 16-team Big East, but the players point to the unknown as to why they will have more success than prognosticators expect.
"It's not about what everybody else thinks, it's about us," Beatty said. "If we believe we can win night-in, night-out and continue to work hard and do things coach wants us to do, I think we can have a successful season."