NEW BRUNSWICK — In four words, Mike Rice said what Rutgers basketball fans have been waiting for over the past two decades.
“Rutgers basketball is back,” Rice said when addressing the sellout crowd at midnight madness last night. Just to be clear, the second year head coach repeated himself: “That’s right, I said it. Rutgers basketball is back.”
While the season doesn’t tip-off for a month, there’s an unfamiliar buzz around the program. And rightfully so.
Rice made a name for himself by taking Robert Morris to the NCAA tournament in his second year and nearly beat Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament the following season. The near upset gave Rice national exposure that he parlayed into the Rutgers head-coaching job.
Picked to finish at the bottom of the Big East, Rice did more with an undermanned and under-talented Rutgers team than anyone anticipated. Now that he’s brought in the highest rated recruiting class in school history, those expectations have risen.
And the heralded freshman class knows of the hype that they’re coming in with. Their goal is to not disappoint.
“For us to live up to expectations,” freshman guard Jerome Seagers said of what he hopes the team accomplishes this year. “Have a good year. Make the tournament.”
While Rutgers hasn’t made NCAA tournament since the 1991 season, the atmosphere at the Barn was that of a team that goes to the Big Dance. Seagers — who won the midnight madness dunk contest — hopes that atmosphere is a small sample of what’s to come.
“We just need everyone to come out like that during the season and pack the RAC,” the 6-1, 170 pounder said. “Have a good year and turn Rutgers around.”
And Dane Miller believes this is the team that can bring Rutgers back to relevancy. On top of the talent, the junior point forward feels this is the most cohesive group he’s played with on the banks.
“This year we’re more of a team,” Miller said when comparing this unit to the past two. “Every guy on the team is exactly alike personality wise. Everybody’s goofy, but everybody wants to win. When you have those things and we have chemistry and play hard we’ll have success. That’s what we’re doing. Everybody plays hard and everybody wants to win.”
Still, they’ll have to live up to dealing with extra attention. The Scarlet Knights won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. They’ll likely be picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big East.
Rutgers has gone from a doormat team to one that many are going to pick as a dark horse in the Big East. Handling that pressure is not always easy.
“When everybody’s talking about you, it’s hard because you know you have to back it up, but at the same time we set the goals for ourselves and we know it’s not going to be easy,” Miller said. “But I feel like this is the team to do it. We have the talent, we have the pieces and we have the heart. With coach Rice you have to play hard to play and everybody knows that.”
With the season four weeks away there’s a lot of work to be done. Especially since Rutgers will rely heavily on some of the true freshman.
“Holy smokes. It’s scary. Don’t talk about that,” Rice said when asked if it feels like the season is a month away. “It’s amazing because we have so much to do and they’re so young. You saw a bit of the athletic talent that these guys have. It depends if they can embrace teamwork, and togetherness and toughness and everything that we do.”