Balking at History

Rutgers is off to its best Big East start since the 1999-2000 season, and can be two games over .500 in league play for the first time since 2002 if it wins Saturday at Notre Dame. It would also match the best start to a season in 30 years, but coach Mike Rice isn't selling any of that to his players.

Sophomore guard Jerome Seagears rested comfortably in one of the padded theatre seats inside Rutgers' locker room.

A scorer in high school who is beginning to understand the virtues of dribble penetration to create scoring chances for others, he had seven assists and zero turnovers and was the driving offensive force in a three-point win against South Florida.

What it meant beyond the night, though, was lost on Seagears.

Asked if he knew Rutgers' overall record, he paused.

"I'm not even sure," Seagears said.

Big East record?

"I just know we have a winning record in the Big East," he said.

It is exactly how third-year coach Mike Rice wants it heading into tonight's 8 o'clock tip at No. 20 Notre Dame, where a win would give the Scarlet Knights (12-4) their best start since 1982-83, when they were20-4 en route to a 23-8 season.

As modest as it seems, Rutgers is already off to its best start since 2005-06, and is off to its best Big East start since Seagears was a 9-year-old. The Scarlet Knights are 3-2 in the league for the first time since the 1999-2000, and they are tied for fourth in the conference. It's just Rice would prefer his player not focus, or even know, the quick league start is also the best start the school has had since joining the league in 1994-95.

"I'm going to stop talking about what we are, and get to the next game," Rice said when asked about his team's league record. "I have to stop thinking about it, and talking to my team about it because it's ‘Let's just go to the next game,' and whatever we are after 14 more games, I think we'll be satisfied if we just take that approach. But, it's important."

However, Seagears is more the exception rather than the rule inside the locker room when it comes to not paying attention to the standing.

"I haven't been (3-2) since I've been here," senior center Austin Johnson said. "It's great. It feels great. I just want to keep winning."

The trick, though, is to not become giddy with the success. It happened when Rutgers squeaked out a win at St. John's on Jan. 9, but was never in the game three days later in a loss to Cincinnati.

"Right now our record doesn't mean anything until we get deep into the Big East season," sophomore guard Myles Mack said. "We're trying to get as many wins as possible."

What would a win against Notre Dame mean?

It speaks of what Rice was up against in trying to change the culture of the program when he took over three years ago, and the direction the program could be heading.

Since the Scarlet Knights joined the league, they have never been 4-2. The last time they were two games over .500 in league play was 2001-02, when they were 8-6. Furthermore, the Scarlet Knights won four conference games or less in a season six times, but Rice no longer plans to use any of it as motivation.

When it comes to overall record, Rutgers already equaled or surpassed its win total in 12 of the seasons since the aforementioned 1982-83 season. "I talked to my staff,' Rice said, "and my staff said, ‘Maybe you're harping on it too much, maybe it's not as motivating to them as it is to you? Just keep it simple. Just keep this team focused. A Big East game is motivation enough, and maybe they don't like that pressure. Let's focus on the task at hand, and that's the next game."

And so the Scarlet Knights head into the game against the Irish, which is favored by 12 points, with a chance to take a major step at pulling away from its mediocre history, and inject itself into the NCAA Tournament conversation for the first time the 2001-02 season, when Rutgers was 18-9 before losing its final two regular season games, its Big East tournament opener, and then its NIT first-round game.

"We're been through last season (14-18, 6-12), and we know what we want to do this season," Seagears said. "We know what it feels like to lose. We want to know what it feels like to win."


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