New-look Knights Changing Attitudes

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- It is early in the season, but through three games Rutgers has proven to be a vastly different team to what it has been the last few years. First-year coach Mike Rice brought a high intensity, sweat-the-small-stuff approach, and the players are feeding off that as they look for their third straight win today against Norfolk State.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Austin Johnson knows he is undersized, but Rutgers' 6-foot-7 sophomore center doesn't care.

Not much was thought of the Scarlet Knights entering the season, and even after the unexpected 16-ponit weekend win against Miami, not much is expected.

And the Scarlet Knights, who host Norfolk State today at 7:30 p.m., don't care.

New coach Mike Rice spent an offseason making the Scarlet Knights mentally tougher, getting them to understand what playing hard really means, and making sure excuses for losses and poor effort did not exist.

"Coach Rice's mentality is rubbing off on us," Rutgers senior power forward Jonathan Mitchell said. "We're coming out every day and believing if we keep practicing and buying into the formula that coach Rice wants, we're going to be successful."

The new attitude has been present in each of the three games.

Rutgers fell behind by double digits early in the season opener against Princeton, but didn't collapse. Instead, tough defense and rebounding enabled the Scarlet Knights to get back into the game, and have a shot at the end of regulation to win it before losing in overtime.

The Scarlet Knights showed they could put teams away with a win against Fairfield, and proved teamwork on the defensive end and purposeful offense could work against superiorly talented teams in the win against Miami.

"It goes to show that we're better than a lot of people expected," Mitchell said. "But we just have the mentality that we're the underdog in pretty much every game this season, so we have nothing to lose."

No one exemplifies Rutgers' new approach more than Johnson, who played timidly last season and lacked confidence in defending, rebounding and scoring.

Faced with the prospect of defending Reggie Johnson, Miami's 6-10, 300-pound center, Austin Johnson didn't back down. In 17 minutes, he finished with nine points and five rebounds. He also blocked a shot, had a steal and committed two fouls.

"I feel like I got stronger, and I feel like that translates to overall toughness and not being pushed around by bigger people," Johnson said. "It's being able to battle. Coach Rice emphasizes will in every practice, and to make sure that we play every possession, so I feel like it translates onto the court.

"If I see it as a daunting task, then I'm basically setting myself up for failure."

The defense against Miami wasn't the only difference in Johnson's approach.

During a two-minute stretch when Rutgers held a nine-point lead but couldn't score, Johnson had two rebounds. He also ended the drought and gave the Scarlet Knights points inside when he scored on a jump-hook with 6:35 to play to push the lead to 11 points.

Reticent to take shots last season, Johnson is shooting 69.2 percent from the field.

"I feel like I have to do it to help my team win," he said. "It's no longer a matter of me not being confident anymore because I put in the work over the summer, and the coaches have confidence in me. It's just being confident in myself and doing the things I know I can do on the court.

"I make that shot a lot in practice, so I figure I might as well take it in the game."

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