PITTSBURGH -- For Mike Rice, the job at Rutgers involves teaching more than just the pick and roll.
It’s about teaching his Scarlet Knights to have a little faith.
Rutgers has been downtrodden, beaten up and spit out. Its most recent offseason was part and parcel for the plight of the program. Leading scorer Mike Rosario transferred and Gregory Echenique left, too. Then Coach Fred Hill was ousted in a fiery frenzy.
Couple that with years of struggles and you’ve got a team that is constantly looking for the other shoe to drop.
“Instead of thinking positive, it’s ‘What’s going to happen next? What’s going to happen now and how are we going to lose this game?’ ’’ Rice said. “You see it in practice. We’re constantly trying to figure out what we have to do to turn it around. Usually it’s your seniors talking to your freshmen, but our seniors, with their history, they’re sometimes the ones thinking, ‘OK, we’re on the tracks and here comes the train.' ’’
Rutgers’ 63-54 win against Auburn won’t go down as a season changer. The Tigers arguably are among the worst BCS-league teams going, with a huge mountain for Tony Barbee to scale. But the fact that the Knights overcame themselves -- their 0-for-12 start from the floor, their late-game fizzle when Auburn tried to make comeback -- matters.
It matters to a team and a coach trying to build something with a base made out of something a little stronger than Jell-O.
The Scarlet Knights are 6-2 and have beaten teams from multiple BCS leagues (Miami and now Auburn) for the first time since 1999.
It’s not huge, not with the daunting Big East schedule right around the corner, but it’s something.
“Hopefully sometime soon we won’t be talking about stats like those in press conferences because it shows how much we’ve struggled,’’ Rice said. “What I like about this team is we didn’t cave. We didn’t come apart. We clawed as a team. The fight of this team is improving.’’