Look past the obvious loss of Elijah Carter and fall to 4-9 in Big East play. Losing to bottom-dweller DePaul for the second straight season means Rutgers needs a miracle to end a seven-year postseason drought.
Rice called for a "winning February" in the Big East and the result has been a 1-3 record and descent to 12th place in the conference standings. Spoiling one of the best starts in school history with eight losses in the last 10 games, what does it mean for the Scarlet Knights?
For Mike Rice… Rice said himself that year three was when results needed to really start showing. Rice personally recruited all but two of the players on his roster and Rutgers will likely find itself in the bottom half of the standings yet again. But to call for his firing this early is premature and detrimental to a Rutgers basketball program that has not been a national player since before Rice was born. Here are a few reasons why.
- Rice inherited a basketball program so dysfunctional that it was laughable. Rutgers did not just lose games, but did so in blowout games in front of empty stands with a coach that spent his offseason verbally berating umpires. There is no overnight fix for the problems that Rice inherited and he needs more time to change the culture.
- Rutgers is improving. Yes, it is slow and sometimes unnoticeable during losing streaks, but this is program is in better shape than when Rice took over. Rutgers has two "bad losses" this year. That number usually pushes double digits. Shockingly, Rutgers has a real shot at a .500 record this year, which has not happened since 2005-06. Rutgers is still two games over with five regular-season games left.
- The "young team" excuse does not always play, but Rutgers has a roster of mostly sophomores that are just learning what it takes to win in the Big East. Rutgers is clearly not there yet, however.
- Why repeat past mistakes? The move from Bob Wenzel to Kevin Bannon did not work and ended ugly. The same goes for the move from Bannon to Gary Waters. And things were so rough under Hill that Waters' NIT teams are the best younger generations of Rutgers fans remember.
Games like Villanova and Providence that once looked favorable now have Rutgers has a severe underdog. And beating Seton Hall twice in the same season is a huge challenge. At 13-11, Rutgers needs at least three more wins to push for the NIT. And it has to happen without Carter, who is one of the only players with the ability to create his own shot.
Losing Eli Carter… Rutgers had a solid 10 minutes with Carter out against DePaul, but it will be tough to sustain any offense without its leading scorer. Carter's absence mean that Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears will be pushing 35 minutes a night the rest of the season, no easy task heading into the Big East tournament.
What is fixable For program readying for a new arena and Big Ten membership, improvements need to be made for Rutgers to return to its glory days. This season is not yet dead, but the real changes need to take place in the offseason.
- Get tougher. Whether it is the coaching style, attitude or the kinds of players Rutgers recruits, this team always seems to come up on the short end of game-defining plays. Take away Poole's steal against Seton Hall and the final 60 seconds at Madison Square Garden against St. John's and Rutgers has not been able to close out games. Foul or no, Rutgers was one shot by Carter away from upsetting Notre Dame. Rutgers gave up too many offensive rebounds to DePaul yesterday and finishing at the rim has always been a weakness in close games. That comes down to mental toughness and Rice has to find a way to instill that into his program.
- Develop guards. Mack took a big jump this year but needs another before he can become the kind of guard that tournament teams rely on. Carter, though the leading scorer, has showed little improvement on the offensive side of the ball since his arrival. Rutgers settles for too many low-percentage shots and that starts with Carter, who has 77 more shots than anyone else on the team.
- Keep a clean image. Rutgers was the birthplace of some great basketball stories. Jim Valvano got where he did because of his Rutgers roots, the same can be said about Dick Vitale. Phil Sellers should be a college basketball legend. And even now, the charity work Rice does in the battle against cancer is inspiring. But what comes to mind to the average fan — naked free throws, a profanity-laced tirade at Bainton Field and Rice's suspension earlier this year.