As you probably recall, former Rutgers coach Fred Hill left Piscataway over the summer in a manner I wouldn’t exactly characterize as professional, having burned bridges with players, baseball coaches and administrators along the way. While no one who watched Rutgers play, be it a fan or a fan of an opposing team, could be too surprised, considering the alarming transfer rate of his players and fierce style, their first season under new head coach Mike Rice has the college basketball world turning heads at the former perennial bottom-dwellers.
Last week, the Scarlet Knights shocked Villanova, coming back late and winning on a four-point play to beat the Wildcats for just the second time since 2004. Though their 4-9 record conferenced record isn’t one to be concerned about, their collection of single-digit losses to teams like Pittsburgh (by three points), Notre Dame at the Joyce Athletic Center (seven) and St. John’s at the Garden (two), in addition to their stunner over Villanova, indicates that Rutgers could be closer to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1991 than most think. The New Jersey prep school scene has always overflowed with talent, but Hill struggled to retain his players from within the state. Rice has already made waves with his 2011 recruiting class, and it could just be a matter of time before Rutgers is dancing.
In the here-and-now though, losses are still losses, and there’s no ignoring that the Scarlet Knights have been handled with ease by UConn, Georgetown, Cincinnati and Seton Hall. The Orange will look to add their name to the latter list on Saturday. Rice already has some familiarity in the Carrier Dome, as his Robert Morris teams lost to the Orange there twice in recent seasons, in the 2008 NIT and early last season. He has additional experience on Jamie Dixon’s staff at Pittsburgh, so his pedigree has bred plenty of familiarity with the toughness of the conference, which has probably leveled his learning curve a little bit.
He’ll lean heavily on sharpshooter Jonathan Mitchell, who has led the team in scoring in eight of its last 14 games, and has averaged 17.1 points per game in that span, compared to his season average of 14.9 per contest. His 42.3% success rate from distance puts him near the top of the conference in that category, and not far behind him is 6’2 guard James Beatty at 38%.
While Casey Mitchell hurt the Orange from deep on Monday, there wasn’t much behind him from the perimeter, so SU could concentrate on denying him the ball late in the game, a strategy that was important in guiding the Orange to a win. Now, however, the team is back to facing multiple perimeter threats, and the front of the zone will be tested once again. One stat I feel was overlooked in the wake of the Jim Boeheim press conference hooplah and the avoidance of an unprecedented fourth straight home loss earlier in the week was Scoop Jardine’s five steals against the Mountaineers, which matched a career-high. If you’re a regular reader, you know how critical I’ve been of Jardine in this space, but he’s been playing better lately. He’s still too prone to making mistakes, but with Dion Waiters struggling to produce from the bench, the Orange have few alternatives.
Brandon Triche has also done a few things to get fans feeling confident about the backcourt in spite of the lack of depth, with two straight 20-point games. He’s been picking up a lot of slack left by Kris Joseph’s struggles and the extra attention given to Rick Jackson, and he continues to make the transformation from passive complementary player to team leader. He’s been driving to the basket when he sees a lane, and if he isn’t finishing, and sometimes if he is, he ends up on the free throw line, a place where he’s been comfortable all season as the team’s best free-throw shooter.
There isn’t a ton of depth in the Rutgers frontcourt to stop Triche and the rest of the Orange from finishing in the lane. Gilvydas Biruta can clog the lane with a 6’8 230-pound frame, and while he has experience from Lithuania’s national team, he is nonetheless a freshman in the Big East, and even with his size, he’s only the third-best rebounder on the team. Mitchell and sophomore Dane Miller are the Scarlet Knights’ top two rebounders, at 5.9 and 5.7 boards per game, respectively. Opposing offenses are fifth in the nation at not having their shots blocked by the Rutgers defense, and that lack of size has also lead to teams to shoot it from deep – Rutgers is near the bottom of the barrel nationally at three-point attempt percentage on defense, a stat which weighs the number of threes a team takes against a given defense over the number of total field goal attempts from the floor.
The dearth of size also means that Rick Jackson should continue to break out of his mini-slump and get back to his regular production, even if Rutgers doubles him in the post. In the big picture, the Scarlet Knights are a Big East team rising from the ashes, but this matchup is a bad one for Rice’s troops. Prediction: Syracuse 73, Rutgers 59.