"Dreams really do come true. It's an opportunity of a lifetime to be here at Rutgers University - it's something I take a great deal of pride in and I don't take lightly." So said Fred Hill last March 27th, when he was named the head coach at Rutgers University. There was never any reason to doubt his sincerity. There still isn't - only now, for some, there appear to be growing reasons to doubt his abilities. And it isn't just that Rutgers has a record of 1 and 4 - its how they've lost these games.
The season opened with a 55-to-41 loss at home to Kansas St., with the margin of defeat probably about the average number that Rutgers trailed by throughout most of the night. However, it was a game remembered (or perhaps unable to be forgotten) by the RU faithful for the Scarlet Knights unbelievably atrocious shooting percentage that evening: 19%. Next up was the Knights lone victory, an 82-to-41 pasting of a Div. 2 St. Thomas Aquinas squad that might not lose by much less to St. Benedicts or Oak Hill.
The season's lone bright spot was quickly forgotten, as two nights later the Knights would take the floor against 0 and 4 Jackson St. out of the SWAC, and what was to ensue would be a loss that left everyone - coaches, players, and fans alike - reeling. Down by 15 points early in the second half at home (troubling enough in and of itself), Rutgers fought back to reclaim the lead late in the game. Clinging to a two point lead with 32 seconds left - and in possession of the ball - Rutgers would go on to lose in particularly devastating fashion, as Jackson St. point guard Catraiva Givens nailed a three pointer with one second left to win it for the visiting Tigers.
The Knights would then hit the road and travel to Illinois to take on the Bradley Braves. However, unlike the previous game, in which the outcome wasn't decided until literally the very last second, this one was as close to being over before it even began as any game can possibly be. Bradley opened the game on a 29 to 8 run, and it only got worse from their. Putting on one the most torrid first-half shooting displays anyone who witnessed it is ever likely to see, the Braves went into the half leading Rutgers by an incredible 34 points, at 61 to 27. Rutgers actually outscored Bradley in the second half 45 to 40, to lose by the final count of 101-72.
The last stumbling block for Rutgers so far would be their final game in the
Chicago Challenge Invitational (all games except K-State were a part of it),
against Miami of Ohio. The Red Hawks dealt the cold-shooting Scarlet Knights
(27% for the game) a 57 to 44 defeat. So early in the season the Knights stand
at 1 and 4, and the critics have already come out in droves - and they are seemingly
intent on taking no prisoners.
To read the message boards from websites that cover RU sports these days, a casual reader unfamiliar with Rutgers athletics might be tempted to think that Fred Hill's entire lifetime involvement with basketball has consisted of going to a few Harlem Globetrotters games with his dad when he was a kid. "He can't coach", "He's in over his head", "He's unorganized", "He doesn't know what he's doing out there", "He's running the program into the ground" - and these are some of the more mild sentiments being expressed. Everything from planning and preparation to the defenses he's chosen to run to the way he and his assistants speak to the press, have been severely criticized by some.
There are even those want him replaced now - after 5 games.
The mentality of those Rutgers fans that view a man that has spent his entire adult professional life - just slightly over 25 years - doing nothing but being a member of various coaching staffs in college basketball, and now feel that he has learned absolutely nothing from all this, and is thus completely inept, is a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that very similar sentiments were expressed - some as recently as the beginning of last season - about Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano.
However, although it is indeed patently ridiculous to think that Fred Hill does not know the game of basketball inside and out, it is reasonable to think that since this is his first head coaching position, there might be an adjustment to being the final decision maker, and as such a slight learning curve for him to go through. The feeling here is that he will adjust - and in the long run will be better off for it.
Then there is the matter of his team. The Knights entered this season without their best player from last year, Quincy Douby. To say that he was the most skilled and best shooter on this squad, and that he carried this team, is much like saying Snow White was slightly taller than the seven dwarfs. The most glaring deficiency on this team now is its shooting: Through five games, Courtney Nelson is shooting 22%, Marquis Webb and Anthony Farmer 28%, Ollie Bailey 37%, and Jaron Griffin 39%. Even Adrian Hill, who isn't shooting jumpers, is struggling slightly at 42%. Only JR Inman, at 46% (and a team-leading 13.8 ppg), and Hamady N'diaye at 66% (all from way down low) are respectable.
But this team is young. Of the eight players just mentioned, only Webb and Hill are seniors. Three starters -Inman, Griffin, and Farmer- are just sophomores, while N'diaye is just a freshman. Of the recruits signed for next year, all are guards and wings - and all can score. One of them, Corey Chandler, will enter RU with extremely high expectations, a player many feel will establish himself as one of RU's best guards ever. In what this writer feels is perhaps a touch of irony, it's interesting to note that this current team, struggling mightily at the moment, has two players - Inman and N'diaye, who may very well establish themselves as two of the greatest players ever at Rutgers. When Chandler arrives next year, that number will increase to three.
So the feeling here is that there is nothing to do but be patient and support this team - and its coach. Stay positive.
The hope of this writer is that all those players that are scheduled to return next year do so. (This is Rutgers after all) Fred Hill is not going anywhere. Let him learn and grow and support him. Please keep in mind that the man actually wants to be here (once again, this is Rutgers). Who should we try for - Billy Donovan?
But this writer is tired of writing all this. I interviewed Sonny Vaccaro over the summer and at the end of it I asked him about Fred Hill. I think it's worth revisiting now what he said then: "If hard work, determination, and the love of the game get it done Fred Hill is going to be a big success. If hard work is the answer, there's no need to have that question anymore, because Freddie will work his ass off to make it good. The second part of the equation is whether there is an emotional support system within Rutgers University. They've sort of gravitated to that football team, and they've got to do that with basketball".
Perhaps people should remember and heed these words during these very tough times for Rutgers basketball.