Hoops: Better Continuity?

Rutgers was picked to finish 15th in the 16-team Big East during the conference's media day Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. However, the Scarlet Knights say an offseaon of improved training and a better corps of leaders will manifest itself in more wins. Rutgers is coming off an 11-21 season, including a 2-16 mark in the Big East, but welcome five new players to the fold.

NEW YORK -- The beginning principles of the 2009-10 season theme coincided with the game-ending buzzer in the loss to Notre Dame in March's Big East Tournament.

Rutgers needed to be more cohesive off the floor before it could be successful on it. So, there was the trip to Spain and the Canary Islands, a more regimented played-based offseason workout program, more accountability within the team, more hanging out together, and on and on.

The unison continued during Wednesday's Big East media at Madison Square Garden, where even a poll of the conference's coaches picked the Scarlet Knights to finish 15th in the 16-team league didn't faze the Scarlet Knights.

Rutgers, which was 11-21 last season and have 32 wins in coach Fred Hill's three years, are banking the behind-the-scenes re-dedication to the program will produce better results than the league expects.

"As a program, our mentality has changed a lot,'' senior center Hamady Ndiaye said. "We've been missing a lot in the process of (building) a team. I think it's one big step we took to learn what leaders do.

"I spoke to coach Hill, learned how to control the team and be a leader. I'm doing everything I can to help (teammates) off the court, doing the little extra things.''

Continuity was the goal of the offseason bonding experience, of which the overseas trip was the focus.

In their initial unveiling to the public, albeit off the court, Ndiaye, junior guard Mike Coburn, sophomore center Greg Echinique and sophomore guard Mike Rosario stayed true to it.

"The trip to the Canary Islands and Madrid (Spain), that did a lot for us,'' said Rosario, who led Rutgers in scoring at 16.2 points per game last season. "Everyone was together and we hung out the whole time, and that builds our trust. You need to trust each other on the court, and developed that.''

Last year's squad was fractured, particularly with the relationship between Hill and wing J.R. Inman being sour and players turned off by the on-going saga.

Each player at Big East media day acknowledged the fractured environment of the team in 2008-09, and each also spoke of a change in leadership and culture.

Anthony Farmer, Inman and Jaron Griffin exhausted their eligibility, and Corey Chandler was dismissed from the team for a violation of athletic department rules. Earl Pettis transferred to LaSalle for family reasons, although the coaching staff tried to persuade him to stay.

In their place, the Scarlet Knights also welcome an older group of players who will make their Rutgers debut this season, and it should aid the maturing process.

James Beatty, who will run the point, has two years of junior college experience and will be 21 in January. Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell, who sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules, turned 22 in August. He is slated to start at the wing or power forward slot.

True freshman Muhamed Hasani, a 6-foot-3 guard from Kosovo, will be 22 in December, classmate Austin Johnson, a forward from Blair Academy, will be 20 in November and 7-foot freshman center Brian Okam is 19.

It leaves freshman wing Dane Miller as the baby of the bunch. He won't turn 19 until after the season.

"Nobody can really see on and off the court what we have done in the offseason,'' Ndiaye said. "We are a team that really took our workouts seriously. It was the hardest I worked since I've been here.

"And I'm talking about everything; from school work to basketball to off the court to helping others out. People have changed.''

How much it translates into wins, though, is the defining characteristic of whether or not Rutgers will be improved.

It is the fourth year of the extensive rebuilding project Hill inherited from former coach Gary Waters. The Scarlet Knights are 32-60 under Hill, finished 2-16 in the Big East last season and suffered home losses to St. Bonaventure, Lehigh and Binghamton.

"I feel very confident we're going to be in games, and win our fair share of games,'' Hill said. "There's only one coaches' poll that matters, and that's mine.

"The depth that we have has made practice very competitive. Our style of play, of pushing the ball and running, the guys are really enjoying it. Defensively, we're really strong up front and our rebounding should allow us to get out and run.''


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