Rice has Rutgers striving for more

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- No wonder Mike Rice is rail thin.

Rutgers' new coach was in near-constant motion Tuesday night -- never sitting during game action, only during timeouts. Instead, Rice paced up and down the sideline over and over again, imploring his team with flailing arms and a weary voice, hoarse even before the game began.

Rice was able to speak after Tuesday night's game -- a 79-65 win over Fairleigh Dickinson. But what came out of his mouth was a bit of a surprise.

"I thought this team, Rutgers tonight played with energy, they played stretches with purpose," Rice said. "It's just, when it's time to really kind of put somebody away -- a knockout punch, so to speak -- this team seems to get in its own way."

In fact, Rice indicated he had some harsh words for his team in the locker room after the game -- despite the fact that it was a relatively comfortable victory. The Scarlet Knights led by 15 at intermission and by 21 early in the second half. Yes, they did allow Fairleigh Dickinson back in the game -- but barely. The closest FDU got in the second half was within 12 points.

"I just think it's a matter of fact of playing the same way you did to build the lead. It's playing with that energy and urgency and purpose," Rice said. "They tend to relax, they tend to play a little looser. I explained to them that you may get away with it now, but it's not gonna be like that when we take our final exam, the Big East season. That's the growth that I'm looking for."

Some would argue that this Rutgers team has grown a lot already. While fellow local Big East team St. John's has been scuffling of late, losing its past two to St. Bonaventure and Fordham, the Scarlet Knights are on an upswing. Rutgers -- picked to finish 15th in the 16-team Big East -- is now 7-2 and has won four straight. Each of those wins has been by at least nine points.

"I know the last four ballgames I've not been pleased with the consistency," Rice countered. "Again, winning is great. And I told them, congratulations. But there's gotta be a bigger need.

"We can't want to be good, we have to need it."

Rice's manic energy and demand for excellence helped him guide Robert Morris to two straight NCAA tournaments before he took the job at Rutgers this spring. His 15th-seeded Colonials took No. 2 seed Villanova to overtime in the first round of the 2010 Big Dance.

Now he's trying to work some magic with these Scarlet Knights, a roster with no stars -- heck, no one was averaging more than 11 points per game prior to Tuesday night. Instead, the team is thriving thanks primarily to its defense. Coming into the FDU game, Rutgers was ranked No. 24 in the nation in scoring defense (58.4 ppg) and No. 26 in field goal percentage defense (37.4 percent).

On Tuesday night, Rutgers limited FDU to 32.6 percent shooting from the field and forced 23 turnovers.

On offense, fifth-year senior forward Jonathan Mitchell -- from Mount Vernon, N.Y. -- led the Scarlet Knights with 22 points, making 10 of his 15 shots from the field.

But the more impressive stat on the offensive side of things was team assists. Rutgers handed out 22 of them (to go along with only 13 turnovers) -- that's the most assists by a Rutgers team in a game since 2005.

Yet despite all that, Rice wasn't happy with his team Tuesday night. And his high standards seem to be rubbing off.

"I wasn't surprised," said senior starting guard Mike Coburn about his coach's dissatisfaction. "Even after I left the floor, I felt that, damn, we didn't play that good. We could have done a lot of things better. "

Rutgers has three more nonconference games before it tips off its Big East schedule at No. 11 Villanova on Jan. 2. The Scarlet Knights will play Monmouth and St. Peter's before Christmas -- two games they should win. And then comes a high-profile matchup with North Carolina at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 28.

The Scarlet Knights have a lot of work to do before that, according to their coach.

"Again, for stretches I think they're ready," Rice said. "All I want and all I demand is for those guys to do the same thing on every single possession, whether they're up 30 or down 30."

Rice's players are well aware of what's expected of them.

"He wants perfection," Coburn said. "And he's not gonna stop telling us and getting on us until it happens."

Even if his voice is gone.

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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