Opening tip: RU begins practice today

The Scarlet Knights cagers begin practice at 5 p.m. Friday, and coach Fred Hill says the team will be much improved from the one that staggered to a 2-16 finish in the Big East last season. Hill discusses when an NCAA Tournament appearance may be possible, the improvement of the returning players and also his excitement regarding many of the newcomers.

More up-tempo, better chemistry and, dare Rutgers men's basketball coach Fred Hill say, the ability to turn the corner and return to the NCAA Tournament in the next two seasons.

Those are the things Hill, entering his fourth season leading the Scarlet Knights, talked about as Rutgers begins practice today (5 p.m.) in preparation for the Nov. 14 opener against Marist.

The optimism is a by-product of an increase of talent via recruiting, a team-building trip to Spain and the Canary Islands in the spring, and a productive summer and fall of workouts.

"It was a very, very good fall,'' Hill said. "I really like this team. I'm real excited about the depth, the work ethic, the chemistry, the camaraderie. We've increased our talent, our basketball IQ. I just really, really like this team.

"They work extremely hard. I think we're starting to develop some real good leadership. I think they're going to be an exciting team to watch, a fun team to coach and I can see us getting better and better and better.''

The Scarlet Knights are coming off an 11-21 campaign, which included a 2-16 mark in Big East play, and suffered from offensive malaise.

And they did so with a cast of young players, and experience could be an issue again this season since center Hamady Ndiaye is the only senior. It is why Hill is excited about this season, and believes the 2010-11 season could be when the Scarlet Knights reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly two decades.

"We need to put it all together, then we (graduate) one person, we add a couple of pieces, and then I think we have a chance to do what we want to do, turn the corner and get back to the Big Dance,'' Hill said. "It's been since 1991. I really think the guys can do that.''

Getting there will take development, and Hill likes what he saw during the NCAA-approved two-hours-per-week workouts the Scarlet Knights held this fall.

Sophomore guard Mike Rosario (Puerto Rico), sophomore power forward/center Greg Echenique (Venezuela) and junior guard Mike Coburn (Jamaica) all played international basketball over the summer, and Hill noticed the difference.

"I thought those were great experiences for our guys,'' Hill said. "Playing against men, older players, the competition, and really getting a feel for what that next step is all about. I thought for all three of those guys, it was really, really a good experience.''

Rutgers also an influx of new talent.

Five new players are expected to make an impact this season, led by Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell, a forward will play the wing and power forward slots. He is eligible after sitting out last year under transfer rules and is expected to start.

Also, James Beatty, a 6-foot-2 guard from Miami-Dade junior college, will run the point. And, if Hill gets his way, push the offense.

"We're going to run a lot more this year,'' Hill said. "I'm really happy so far with the progression James Beatty has made. He played in an up-tempo system, he can see the floor. He likes to push the ball. He's a good passer, he's a leader, he's very talkative.

"He's going to knock down open shots and he gets the ball to the right people at the right time. He's very good in transition, likes to push the ball and puts a lot of pressure on the defense.''

The freshman who made the biggest impact during fall workouts was 6-8 Blair Academy forward Austin Johnson.

"I've really been impressed with Austin Johnson,'' Hill said. "I really think that he came in and had a great summer. He worked extremely hard in the weight room. He's bigger, stronger, more explosive.

"He's developing more of a perimeter game. He's got a great feel in the post, back to the basket player. Very crafty, very good footwork and he's starting to expand his game a little bit and take it out to 15 feet, then 17 feet and 19 feet. I think when he develops that, can down that shot …he's learning how to play off the dribble a little bit. He's got a very, very bright future.''

And that is not to discount the arrival of 6-7 freshman Dane Miller from Rush-Henrietta.

"I think he's going to be really exciting to watch and have some big nights for us,'' Hill said." I think he can have an impact right away. ‘'

There is also Kosovo-product Muhamed Hasani, who arrived on campus at the start of the fall semester. He will be expected to provide minutes off the bench.

Leadership was an issue last season, but a lot of those issues were addressed during the team's offseason trip to Spain and the Canary Islands. It is also where sophomore wing Pat Jackson excelled, which earned him an extensive look for the coming season.

"He's going to get a great opportunity. He can score the basketball,'' Hill said. "He's more of a spot-up shooter right now than he is taking off the dribble with a mid-range game. He's a little streaky. He's got to be more consistent, but he can knock down shots.

"He's long, athletic, has a chance to be a good defender and can really help us on the glass. He can get out and run all day long.''

Hill said the competition was equivalent to mid-level Division I programs in the United States, but the benefits went far beyond the games on the court.

"I thought that was the first step to really kind of take the program to the next step in the process of competing in the best conference in the country,'' Hill said. "You're in a foreign country, you don't speak the language, you kind of have to do everything together, as a team, and I thought it was a great experience for us.''

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