Rutgers hoops in unfamiliar territory

It's been a roller-coaster of a season for Rutgers -- and we're only halfway through.

The Scarlet Knights opened with a stunning home loss to St. Peter's. They won six of their next seven games, but then coach Mike Rice was suspended for three games and fined $50,000 by the university for a violation of athletic department policy, related to inappropriate language and behavior in practices.

Rutgers won all three of the games Rice was suspended for, with associate head coach David Cox running the team. The Scarlet Knights were routed in Rice's return to the bench, 78-53 at Syracuse on Jan. 2. But now they've bounced back with impressive wins versus No. 24 Pittsburgh and at St. John's, and are 2-1 in the Big East for the first time since 2005-06.

"This team is still a work in progress," Rice said Thursday, on the weekly Big East coaches conference call. "But (it) seems to be developing and figuring out how to get out of its way and become successful in this league."

Rutgers, picked to finish 11th in the conference, is currently sixth and has a good chance to climb even higher in the next two weeks. The Scarlet Knights play three of their next four games at home. Two of them -- versus South Florida on Jan. 17 and a rematch against St. John's on Jan. 23 -- are very winnable. Rutgers also hosts No. 21 Cincinnati, which has lost two in a row and three of four, on Saturday, and plays at No. 17 Notre Dame on Jan. 19.

Rice admitted Thursday that he is in an unusual position right now, having to keep his team grounded after early-season success.

"Usually I'm building them up and keeping the energy level and the passion level up," Rice said. "We're gonna talk and have conversations individually with each and every guy. ... And then (keep) doing the same things we've been doing in practice. They've had a pretty good focus."

Rutgers has been led all season long by sophomore guards Eli Carter and Myles Mack, who are averaging 16.9 and 12.9 points per game, respectively. But the Scarlet Knights proved they can win in different ways on Wednesday against St. John's. Carter shot just 3-for-14 and Mack just 1-for-6, but senior forward Dane Miller ignited the team with 11 points, all coming in the second half. And reserves Austin Johnson and Mike Poole chipped in 10 points apiece off the bench.

Miller and Johnson, the two seniors on the team, spoke with the media after the win, and both praised their coach for his performance since the suspension.

"He's been doing a great job," Miller said. "Today he had to be aggressive and make sure we stayed together, because if we didn't, we probably would have lost the game."

Things are looking up for Rice and Rutgers right now. That could change quickly -- the Big East schedule can chew you up and spit you out. But opportunity knocks. The Scarlet Knights have never finished better than .500 in the Big East. If they can do that this year, they'll likely land in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

As Rice himself said late Wednesday night, "Why not us?"