Highlighted by near comebacks and almost securing leads late, the margin of defeat improved significantly in coach Mike Rice's third year but it was not enough to get over the .500 hump or reach a postseason tournament.
Rutgers (15-16, 5-13) will likely be a one-time member in a conference still in need of a name. It is the fourth season for Rice, who will have one of the better teams in the new conference on paper. Rutgers improved its winning percentage from year two to three and goes into next season with a tougher non-conference schedule in the preseason NIT and an unclear conference outlook.
"Better losses" -- A loss is always a loss at the end of the day but Rutgers has gone from frequent embarrassments to being consistently competitive in its Big East schedule. Rutgers suffered three fewer Big East blowouts (losses of 15 points or more) and decreased its margin of defeat by two points in conference play.
Sophomore development -- Myles Mack was not a good half-court guard when he came to Rutgers and he now has full command of the Rutgers offense. Arguably an All-Big East snub this year, Mack continues to improve and stepped up his game even more after Elijah Carter went down for the season. He started wearing down by the end of the season but still improved his scoring and assists by 30 percent from his freshman season. Mack shot 11 percent better from long range as a sophomore and has all-conference potential as a junior.
The same can be said for center Kadeem Jack. Jack was a non-factor as a freshman and battled injuries. As a sophomore, things started clicking by the end of the season. It was not consistent, nor was it dominant, but Jack showed clear signs of development to the point where he and Wally Judge will be a formidable combination next season.
Seasoned guards -- Mack, Carter and Jerome Seagears have now played a combined 110 Big East games, which is guard experience Rutgers has not seen in quite some time, especially at their skill level. Guard play is the difference-maker for teams looking to make tournament runs and win close games and Rutgers now has that. Success in February and March comes down to execution, focus and coaching but Rutgers now has an experience advantage over many of the teams it sees.
Rutgers needs a go-to player that, even when everyone knows it's coming, can take over a game and put the ball in the basket. Guys like Mack and Carter have it in them, but have not shown it consistently.
Mental toughness -- Rutgers continues to play down to its competition. The embarrassment against St. Peter's to open the season was the difference between a .500 record and shot at an NIT bid. This comes back to the inability to close out games.
Too many times Rutgers had the ball in a one-possession game and came up short in the final minute. Against Marquette it was a kicked ball. Against Notre Dame it was a missed layup in traffic. Rutgers even let 10-point leads against South Florida and Seton Hall nearly collapse on its home court before escaping with two of its five Big East wins.
Whether it is players not listening, Rice and his staff not properly communicating their message or something else, it needs to improve.
Slow recruiting -- To expect a repeat of what Rice did in his first year is beyond unfair but Vincent Garrett did not have the impact expected out of a JuCo transfer in his first year. Rutgers missed out on many of its recruiting targets, but has a versatile guard joining the program in Shane Rector. With Craig Brown also committed with two years of eligibility, Rutgers still has a chance to make a splash with its last roster spot in recruiting, but do not expect any of them to have the kind of immediate impact of recruits like Mike Rosario, Dane Miller and Carter as freshmen.
Rector is a very solid piece of the puzzle, but is likely a fourth guard option in 2013-14 and Brown will be needed as an athletic presence on both sides of the court with Miller gone. A shooter like Christ the King's Jon Severe or athletic forward like Wabash Valley JuCo Chris Griffin could be a strong final piece but not on the same level as missed targets like Tyler Roberson or Kris Jenkins.