As excitement builds, RU trying to stay calm

Rutgers' game against Connecticut was announced as a sellout, and it is the most important game the Scarlet Knights have played in coach Fred Hill's tenure. There is excitment across the campus as surging Rutgers has won four of its last five Big East games, and possibility of an NIT bid seems possible. How are the players handling the excitement? And are they thinking about the postseason?

PISCATAWAY –Mike Rosario is noticing more and more classmates are seeking him out, congratulating him on the way Rutgers is playing.

Coach Fred Hill spoke to eight media members after Thursday's practice, a deviation from the usual three or four media members after most practices.

"Everywhere you go, it's unbelievable,'' said Rosario, the sophomore guard. "Everyone is so happy. That's what we're trying to do, build this program to a certain point where everyone is packin' the RAC and it doesn't matter who we play.''

In the face of the most excitement surrounding the program during any of their careers, and with fans – dare they? -- dreaming of a possible run at an NIT bid, the Scarlet Knights aren't biting on what could happen.

Rutgers (14-12, 4-9 Big East) enters Saturday's home contest against Connecticut (15-11, 5-8) having won four of its last five league games, and a sellout crowd is expected for the 4 p.m. tip.

Has there been talk of the postseason?

"No, not at all,'' Rutgers senior center Hamady Ndiaye said. "We don't want to rush ourselves or get carried over thinking about other things. Right now we're just really focusing on the next opponent. I'm looking at the next guy. Who's next? I'm not jumping anybody.''

The Scarlet Knights' ability to grow up as a basketball team on the court coincides with the maturity they are showing off it.

Rather than talk about what is possible in the final five regular season games, and rather than discuss a possible postseason berth, the players said they are thinking only about the Huskies.

"I don't really want to make an exact statement then be disappointed at the end,'' Rutgers point guard James Beatty said. "We want to win every game possible, and extend our season as far as we can. We haven't talked about any postseason play, and where we can be.

"We're just trying to take it as one game, and when we get to that point, I'm sure the coaches will start to put it in out head that we can get somewhere if we win.''

The only person to play in a more important game than this one is power forward Jonathan Mitchell, but that was a long time ago in a much different role.

Mitchell won a national championship as a reserve playing at Florida.

Now, he is Rutgers' second-leading scorer (11.8 ppg) and third-leading rebounding (5.6 rpg). In Big East play, Mitchell leads the Scarlet Knights in scoring at 14.2 points per game.

"We all have to come in scrapping Saturday and do our part,'' Mitchell said. "We have to do the little things that may not show up in the box scorers. We have to come in and do all the grimy, dirty work what UConn doesn't want to do.''

The Huskies have dominated the series, winning 15 of 16 since Rutgers joined the Big East. And while the Scarlet Knights' NIT hopes would get an enormous boost with a win, Connecticut is coming off an upset win at No. 3 Villanova.

Still, the Huskies must win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, but Mitchell doesn't view that as an issue.

"We're just as desperate,'' he said. "We feel like we're in the same situation as them. We're going to come out like a wounded animal. We know they will, and we have to go out the same way.''

Connecticut has lost five of its last seven games, including a loss coach Jim Calhoun called embarrassing upon his return from a medical leave of absence. But the Huskies' uneven play isn't the reason Rosario said "it's a very good time to take on Connecticut.''

The comments stemmed from the way Rutgers is playing.

"Right now we're in a flow, and all on the same page,'' Rosario said. "It's a good test for us because it can show how much heart we have as a program, as a team, to go out and compete against the best.''


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