NEW YORK – Every Rutgers fan should have the opportunity to sit in on a Mike Rice press conference.
Rice could inspire a ballet dancer to run through a brick wall.
Rutgers' first-year coach was alternately incensed at his current squad, and defiant about the future of the program, in his postgame news conference following the Scarlet Knights' 78-55 drubbing by North Carolina on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
"We just didn't exactly follow the formula very well," Rice said. "I just think we had a lack of determination.
"I would use the 'S' word, softness -- but yeah, we were soft and had no determination. And so when you have those two, and your strength maybe was your toughness and your togetherness, those were out the window."
The formula for this undermanned Rutgers team, picked to finish 15th in the 16-team Big East, is to play smart offensively and play their guts out defensively -- a formula that has worked pretty well so far this season. The Scarlet Knights were 9-2 and winners of six in a row coming into this game, holding opponents to just 58.2 points per game -- second-best in the Big East.
In the first half alone against North Carolina, Rutgers surrendered 42 points. The Tar Heels shot 17-for-30 from the field, 6-for-13 from 3-point range, and led by 20 at the break. The game was basically over at that point. The Scarlet Knights never got closer than 15 in the second half.
"Tonight I saw individuals again carrying over maybe a missed shot, a poor pass, and being sad on defense," Rice said. "And again, if you're building what we're building -- a defensive mindset, a toughness -- you can't have that."
Rice, who is known for his "animation" on the sideline (to put it mildly), appeared particularly amped for this game -- with good reason. It was his first game as a head coach at The World's Most Famous Arena. A few minutes before tip-off, when most head coaches are still in the locker room or milling around by the bench, Rice was watching his team take layups like a hawk and clapping his hands repeatedly. It even appeared as if one of the referees had to urge Rice to calm down early in the game.
The Rutgers coach was just as fired up after the game.
"I gotta make my guys tougher, I gotta make them more mentally tougher, I gotta make them more physically tougher, I gotta make them a better team, a better unit, better teammates," Rice said. "We're gonna be better tomorrow, we're gonna get better the next day. And if you don't, you shouldn't be in coaching. So this team is gonna get better, whether they like it or not."
When a reporter asked Rice if he could assess his team's 9-3 start overall heading into Big East play, his response was:
"No, because we lost a game we didn't compete very well in. But get me tomorrow and I would probably say, 9-3, yeah, I'd take it, let's go to the Big East. But right now, no. … Right now I'd like to go practice shell defense."
Rice is right, though -- he should be happy with his team's 9-3 start. Besides Tuesday night's to-be-expected defeat, the only other losses on Rutgers' resume are an overtime defeat at Princeton in the season opener, and a six-point loss to St. Joe's at the Palestra. The highlight, other than the six-game winning streak, was a 16-point win over Miami on Nov. 21. And Rice is off to the best start by a Rutgers head coach since Donald S. White went 10-2 in 1945-46.
The schedule doesn't get any easier, however. The Scarlet Knights' next opponent is No. 8 Villanova, on Sunday in Philadelphia.
After the game, Rice was also asked if he could imagine coming back to the Garden as a favorite in a game like this.
"I would love [it] eventually," Rice said. "But I can't. 'Cause right now I'm thinking about what we need to do defensively to improve. What we need to do offensively.
"Yeah, eventually, when it comes -- end of March? [i.e., the Big East tournament] -- I'll start to think like, boy, how fun would it be to have a sea of scarlet in here."
And when Rice was asked if he had any doubt that that time will come, the coach cut the reporter off before he even finished the question.
“It's gonna happen," Rice said. "It's gonna happen. It's gonna happen.”