Rice moves Rutgers in right direction

January, 12, 2012
01/12/12
4:18
PM ET
Pitt is in a free fall. The Panthers can't score and are winless in the Big East after four games.

But the story from Wednesday's surprising 62-39 result is the team that leveled the beatdown: Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights have work to do to be an NCAA tournament team. It's highly unlikely it would occur this season with Rutgers at 10-7.

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Mike Rice
Kim Klement/US PresswireRutgers coach Mike Rice says his team wasn't ready to win some of its early games this season.
But just look at what Mike Rice's crew has done so far this season. They've held Pitt to 39 points at the Petersen Center, beat Florida in double overtime at the RAC and took out Connecticut by seven in the same building. Those two teams will be in the NCAA tournament and have a legitimate shot of finishing second in the SEC and Big East, respectively.

Rutgers goes to West Virginia on Saturday. Ten days ago the Mountaineers beat Rutgers by 21 at the RAC.

"We shouldn't be afraid of anybody now," said Rice, who has infused the Scarlet Knights' program with excitement like no other coach before him at SUNJ. "We went toe-to-toe with the best backcourt in Florida, the best rebounding team [which he calls Pitt] and the national champs."

While there is a crisis in confidence at Pitt there is no such thing at Rutgers.

"We just can't get bullied," Rice said of this encore against West Virginia. "There were literally six three-point plays. They had points off turnovers. We took quick shots and they ran it down our throats. We showed a lack of poise and purpose. We better take care of the ball and not get bullied."

Rice said the Scarlet Knights weren't ready to win games earlier in the season against Miami, Illinois State, Richmond, LSU, Princeton and even to start the Big East against South Florida.

And it showed. Some games were close. Some were not.

"We're just so much more consistent now," Rice said. "These freshmen aren't freshmen anymore. They have games under their belt. We finally have Big East size. Last year [his first], we were playing with people out of position. We've got size and strength to match up with the Big East frontcourt."

Rutgers is maximizing freshmen who aren't afraid to make mistakes because they're apt to make winning plays within the game, too. Guards Jerome Seagears, Myles Mack and Eli Carter have been able to hang with any backcourt on the schedule. Sophomore Gilvydas Biruta gives the Knights an interesting forward who can score in a variety of ways, and junior Dane Miller is complementing him well on the boards.

Rice, a former assistant to Jamie Dixon at Pitt, said he still can't get over the defense Wednesday night in limiting the Panthers to 39 points. Rutgers was 5-for-19 on 3s, so it wasn't like the Knights were some offensive juggernaut. But Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs was 0-for-7 on 3s and Lamar Patterson was 1-for-7 from the field. Pitt shot 21 percent overall and the same from 3.

Rice said he's not ready to say there is a shift in the Big East with Pitt and Villanova at the bottom, Seton Hall rising up with Rutgers certainly challenging now, as well.

"We're all just scratching and clawing to get to the top eight, seven or six," Rice said. "There were teams you could pencil in at the bottom five or six. But now there's a lot more fight and toughness in our league."

Rutgers was always tabbed as a sleeping giant. So far this season, the Knights have enough quality wins or at least recognizable victories that they are clearly not just a tough out going forward but a team that doesn't appear to be a pretender anymore.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer

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