Perhaps it's better this way. Perhaps it is better that the undefeated football team is the biggest story in college football this year, and that many Rutgers fans may take their time in turning their attention to men's basketball. After all, new coach Hill has certainly had his work cut out for him in restoring pride and prestige to a program that last flirted with the kind of glory that the football team is now flirting with a full 30 years ago. So perhaps it is indeed better that instead the season begins tonight with most RU fans counting the hours to the next football game on Saturday night.
However, now that the football team has emphatically ended its run as the biggest joke in intercollegiate athletics, attention will eventually turn to the sport around which the phrase "March Madness" has become a part of the sports world's lexicon. And when it does, RU fans will be looking at a program that has supplanted football as the unofficial paragon of Div. 1 ineptitude. Consider this: tonight K-State will be entering the RAC with their new head coach, the ever-controversial Bob Huggins, who has been hired to end a string of futility. The Wildcats haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1996, and haven't won a game in that tournament since 1988.
Pretty poor, huh? Maybe so, but compare it to the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers last NCAA appearance was in 1991, and their last NCAA tournament win occurred when Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as US president, way back in 1983. That was under then-head coach Tom Young, the man who led RU to an undefeated season and a Final Four appearance in 1976.
Since Young, the Scarlet Knights have gone through four head coaches prior to Hill: Gary Waters, the man Hill succeeded and coached alongside of for one year (and is the only one of these four to have moved on to another head coaching position), party boy Kevin Bannon (he of the now-infamous strip free-throw fiasco, and other various and sundry indiscretions), Bob Wenzel (fondly remembered for taking RU to it's last two NCAA's, but conveniently forgotten for being fired after five straight losing seasons), and last - but hardly least - Young's immediate successor, Craig Littlepage (who somehow managed to parlay a three-year coaching record at Rutgers of 23 - 63 into eventually becoming the AD at the University of Virginia).
And now the Fred Hill era begins - at least game wise, anyway. Hill has been
plying the trade for which he has made a name for himself at Rutgers for a year
now, and which is the life-blood of all college sports: recruiting. The fall
signing period ends today, and as for now, Hill has convinced four players,
Corey Chandler, Justin Sofman, Earl Pettis, and Mike Coburn, all guards and
wings, to sign with RU. He is also the reason why Courtney Nelson, a former
Star Ledger Player of the Year, (and another guard) will be making his regular
season debut tonight after transferring from Richmond.
That this class lacks big men is glaringly obvious, but nonetheless it is a class that Rutgers fans should be quite happy with. Rutgers has a need for quality guards, and that need has now been met. Chandler in particular seems like he has the potential to become one of the all-time great guards at Rutgers, often drawing comparisons to - and considered better at the same stage than- fellow Newark East Sider Randy Foye. The big men eventually will have to come, and it is unrealistic to think that Rutgers will head into next season with just these four additions.
That brings us to this year's model where, surprisingly, the frontcourt may perhaps be the strongest part of the team; it certainly is the deepest. Rutgers lone recruit this year is in fact perhaps it's most promising - ever. Hamady N'diaye is 6'11 and raw and has only been playing basketball for a few years. He is also quick, athletic, intense, and is a player, according to Coach Hill, "whose upside and potential is phenomenal". He will certainly play tonight, but he will not start. Adrian Hill will get the nod at center. He seems fully recovered, finally, from knee surgeries, and if he can make it through the end of the season healthy and unscathed, it will be a huge plus for this team
Another potential huge plus for this team is a player who will not have any bearing on this game tonight at all, and that is center Byron Joynes. The big man seemed to be coming into his own quite well two years ago, but was severely handicapped last season by a dislocated shoulder that kept popping out. Now he is recovering from a broken foot, and the success of this team will hinge greatly on his ability (or lack of it) to return to full strength - and stay there. With a healthy Joynes, Hill, and N'diaye, the Knights have potential size and talent down low the likes of which most Rutgers fans have never seen.
Couple that with the guy who should be this year's leading scorer, sophomore JR Inman, who returns as a starter and also from a broken right fibula (if it seems as if almost every player on this team is coming back from an injury, you're right), and bring in Ollie Bailey off the bench, and you're talking about a frontcourt that looks like a real legit Big East frontcourt. You know the rest of the starters: Anthony Farmer, Marquis Webb, and Jaron Griffin, along with Courtney Nelson joining Bailey as one of the first off the bench.
You also know the question everyone wants to know: who replaces Quincy Douby and his 25 points per game? The answer, apparently, is no one and everyone. We will find out as the season progresses how this team adjusts, but for know its safe to say that perimeter shooting will not be the strength of the team. It's difficult to assess much from RU's 64-41 exhibition win over Caldwell last week; a far better indication will unfold tonight against Kansas St. So just who are these guys?
K-State comes in tonight after going 15-13 last year, 6-10 in conference, and no postseason (RU was 19-14, 7-9, and made it to the 2nd round of the NIT). The Wildcats return their leading scorer, 6'7 senior wing Cartier Martin, who averaged 18 points per game while earning 2nd team All-Big 12 honors last season. Also back is another wing, 6'5 junior David Hoskins, who averaged 13 points a game. Another returning starter is 6'5 senior guard Lance Harris (10.7 ppg). Other returnees that played significant minutes are 6'6 junior guard Akeem Wright and 6'4 junior guard Clent Stuart.
There are three significant newcomers for K-State, two of whom started in the team's 70 - 60 opening game win at home against William and Mary: 6'2" JUCO point guard Blake Young and 6'10 freshman Luis Colon (the starters), and 7'3 Jason Bennett, the tallest player in school history. Bennett, needless to say, seems to already be a shot blocking presence. Against William and Mary, the team shot only 24-of-80, and just 6-of-29 from three point land. Chemistry and cohesion, nothing uncommon with a new coach and several new faces, appears to have been a significant factor.
As for RU's chances tonight, this is where you come in. Remember the football game against Louisville? Remember other great home wins at the RAC? Remember how you were the 12th man? Just remember that basketball season is also here now, and if you want to help another coach at RU build a winner (just remember who you saw slapping Ray Rice's helmet after the touchdown he scored Thursday night), come out to the RAC and cheer this team on to victory. Help get the Fred Hill era off to the right start.