Analyzing the progress takes many shapes

Rutgers coach Fred Hill's job status has been a topic of debate for the last month, and things could not be any murkier given the way the Scarlet Knights have rebounded and played well lately. In winning five of the last six games, including four of five in the Big East, Hill's job status remains a hot topic. But there is more to the decision than just wins and losses.

Progress is what everyone asked for when coach Fred Hill became Rutgers' coach four years ago, but the interpretation of it is about as wide open as a talented New Jersey hoopster's recruitment.

Judge it from a month ago, and the progress is incredible. Not just the four Big East wins in the last five conference games, but the Scarlet Knights' teamwork, effort, style of play and attitude.

Judge it from a year ago, when Rutgers finished 11-20, 3-15 in the Big East, and seemed ready for a summer trip to Spain by late January, and the progress is promising, even hopeful, the program is starting to build momentum.

Judge it from 2005-06, which was Gary Waters' last season as coach, when the Scarlet Knights went 19-14, were 7-9 in the Big East, and played in the NIT for the second time in three years. From that angle, things don't look as rosy as the last three weeks seemed.

Rutgers is 14-12, including 4-9 in the Big East, heading into Saturday's home contest against Connecticut.

But trying to figure out if Hill should keep his job, or if athletic director Tim Pernetti should look for replacement and begin the rebuilding process, is not confined to the final five games of the regular season.

A broader view is needed.

Waters left Rutgers having never developed relationships with New Jersey's high school coaches, which meant more years of animosity built between the powerful coaches and Rutgers.

Hill had those relationships, and was instrumental in building Villanova's pipeline from North Jersey to the Main Line, vaulting the Wildcats into an elite program.

Hill may have followed Waters after an NIT berth, but he inherited a mess, including a roster full of players with character flaws. While Hill has been criticized for the number of players leaving the program, it became en vogue to do so long before his arrival.

Earl Johnson anyone? Dahntay Jones?

But Hill also hasn't brought in the talent he did at Villanova, and so many other places where he was a hot-shot recruiter. And although the transfers of key players were influenced by factors outside of basketball, it is still Hill's responsibility to recruit and keep players at Rutgers.

Hill's best argument for remaining Rutgers' coach is the play of the Scarlet Knights the last three weeks.

It showed the team didn't give up on him, and their improved play showed his ability to gets players to perform better as a season wears on.

Winning games when leading scorer Mike Rosario is experiencing shooting woes, like Rutgers did against Georgetown and DePaul, shows the development of the team, and the concept of a team.

A common criticism by Hill's detractors is his coaching ability, or a perceived lack thereof, and those complaints were loud when the Scarlet Knights' average margin of defeat was close to 20 points during an 0-8 start to the Big East.

But Hill found ways to make Rutgers successful lately despite the absence of starting Greg Echenique, first because of injury, and then more damaging, because of a parents-led mid-season transfer to Creighton.

By patching together a lineup including 6-foot-7 freshman Austin Johnson playing backup center in the rugged Big East, mixing zone with man-to-man defense and helping to develop Miller into perhaps the conference's freshman of the year, Rutgers is playing in mid February with a possibility of an NIT berth.

With home games against Connecticut, Seton Hall and DePaul, road contests against Pittsburgh and Seton Hall, and the Big East tournament still on the schedule, the Scarlet Knights have a realistic chance of finishing the season 3-4.

Not overly impressive, but it would mean Rutgers is 17-16 overall (16-16 in the NIT's eyes because of a win vs. Division II Caldwell College), 7-11 in the Big East. That may be enough to get the Scarlet Knights to the NIT, and with only one senior.

So, it comes back to measuring progress, and how it is done.

If Echenique was back, it would be a no-brainer to for Hill to return. He would deserve the chance to see what he could do with a starting five (Hamady Ndiaye would be coming off the bench) back for a second season, and most of his top reserves also returning.

Instead, the coaching staff is scrambling to find a center to come in and contribute at the Big East level next season. Those types of players are difficult enough to find two years in advance, so trying to locate one, even globally, in three months is an almost impossible chore.

Add in the uncertain status of a coach, and those players are even harder to find.

The decision, ultimately, is for Pernetti to make, and the $1.8 million Hill is guaranteed after this season should be a factor, although not the factor.

Whether to keep Hill has turned into an interesting dilemma, but with an easy answer.

You don't fire a coach when you think he may not be the answer.

You fire a coach when you know he is not the answer.

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