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September 27, 2010

Rice brings passion to rebuilding Rutgers

It didn't take long for Rutgers forward Jonathan Mitchell to experience a welcome case of deja vu.

Every time Mitchell hangs around new Rutgers coach Mike Rice, the transfer from Florida is reminded of his first college coach.

"It feels like I'm back in a Billy Donovan-type of intensity," Mitchell said. "He's really passionate about winning."

Rutgers fans can only hope Rice eventually delivers Donovan-type results. It could take some time.

Rice, 41, faces perhaps the toughest challenge of any coach who switched jobs in the offseason. Rutgers hasn't posted a winning record in Big East competition since joining the league in 1995-96 and hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1991.

In addition, Rutgers returns only five scholarship players from a team that went 15-17 last season, and the roster doesn't include anybody taller than 6 feet 8.

All those factors likely will put Rutgers at the bottom of the Big East standings in most preseason forecasts. Rice refuses to allow those pessimistic prognostications to change his outlook.

"There's no white flag in my drawer or desk," Rice said.

Why shouldn't he believe in himself? Rice already has proved he can develop a winner, albeit on a much smaller stage.

Rice was 73-31 in his three seasons at Robert Morris, which reached the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons. When Rice took over that program, Robert Morris hadn't earned an NCAA bid since 1992.

He already has caught the attention of a couple of Big East coaches.

Rice worked as an assistant on Jamie Dixon's staff at Pittsburgh before getting hired at Robert Morris in 2007. In Rice's last game at Robert Morris, the 15th-seeded Colonials led No. 2 Villanova for nearly the entire game before falling 73-70 in overtime in the opening round of the NCAA South Regional.

"He's a very passionate coach," Dixon said. "He's a hard worker. Basketball's in his blood."

That love for the game comes from a lifetime spent as a coach's son. Rice's father, also named Mike, coached at Duquesne (1978-82) and Youngstown State (1982-87) after a successful 13-year career running high school programs.

Seeking a turnaround
Rutgers has gone through two decades of misery since its last NCAA tournament appearance in 1991. Here's a look at the Scarlet Knights' year-by-year results since. Seasons that ended with NIT appearances are in bold.
1991-9216-156-10Bob Wenzel
1992-9313-156-8Bob Wenzel
1993-9411-166-10Bob Wenzel
1994-9513-157-9Bob Wenzel
1995-969-186-12Bob Wenzel
1996-9711-165-13Bob Wenzel
1997-9814-156-12Kevin Bannon
1998-9919-13 9-9Kevin Bannon
1999-200015-166-10Kevin Bannon
2000-0111-163-13Kevin Bannon
2001-0218-138-8Gary Waters
2002-0312-164-12Gary Waters
2003-0420-13 7-9Gary Waters
2004-0510-192-14Gary Waters
2005-0619-14 7-9Gary Waters
2006-0710-193-13Fred Hill
2007-0811-203-15Fed Hill
2008-0911-212-16Fred Hill
2009-1015-175-13Fred Hill
Note: *-Rutgers was a member of the Atlantic 10 until joining the Big East in the 1995-96 season
Rice frequently attended his father's games and was a regular fixture in the locker room as a precocious pre-teen. He'd often play practical jokes on the players, who typically responded with pranks of their own.

"He was always playing jokes on them," said the elder Rice, now a television color analyst for the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers. "But as soon as I left the locker room, they'd grab him. Usually I would end up finding him taped to the locker."

Even before Rice entered high school, his family knew he eventually would go into coaching. Although Rice was a good enough player to spend three seasons as a starting guard at Fordham, he didn't have the quickness or jumping ability to make the NBA.

But he certainly had the attributes to make it as a coach.

Even then, he had the enthusiasm for the game that would make him a master motivator and an expert recruiter. And life as a coach's son had helped him learn the value of winning.

"The biggest thing [my father] taught me is the passion for the game," Rice said. "It means more. I always say that a coach's son, when they get into coaching, they understand the wins and losses and how it affects their family. It means more to us.

"Instead of going on vacations or going to the swimming pool, I went on recruiting trips with him when I was growing up. It certainly taught me to have a passion for the game and the sense of urgency you need to have to be successful."

He apparently learned a thing or two on those recruiting trips. Rice already has received commitments from four top-150 prospects in the 2011 recruiting class: 6-8 forward Kadeem Jack (No. 33), 6-1 guard Jerome Seagears (No. 99), 5-10 guard Myles Mack (No. 119) and 6-9 center Derrick Randall (No. 139). The class also includes 6-6 guard Malick Kone and 6-3 guard Mike Taylor, both rated as three-star recruits.

"It's a great first step," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "They will make Rutgers more competitive as freshmen. Then you put together another class like that, and it's very possible in two years they're a very strong contender to get a tournament berth."

Most players in the Class of 2011 weren't even born the last time Rutgers reached the NCAA tournament, so Rice couldn't sell prospects on the program's history. He had to win them over by the sheer force of his personality.

And he somehow has pulled it off.

"The passion, it just showed in his voice," Seagears said. "I was definitely sold on where he was going to take the Rutgers program. He had that energy."

Before he can welcome in this talented recruiting class, Rice needs improvement from the guys already on his roster. How can the Scarlet Knights exceed expectations this season?

Rice has started by changing the attitude around the program. As soon as Rice introduced himself, his optimism started to rub off on the players.

More defense needed
Mike Rice's first challenge in rebuilding Rutgers is to upgrade the Scarlet Knights' defense. Rutgers' has finished in the bottom half of the conference standings each of the past eight seasons in field-goal percentage defense.
SeasonBig East rankPct.
2002-038th of 14 teams.446
2003-049th of 14 teams.434
2004-0511th of 12 teams.484
2005-069th of 16 teams.437
2006-0713th of 16 teams.442
2007-0811th of 16 teams.444
2008-0913th of 16 teams.462
2009-1015th of 16 teams.472
(Source: Big East communications department)
"He walked in the room like he was ready to coach, like this was his place, like this was home," Mitchell said. "He definitely was confident, right off the jump."

Rice also should command respect by carrying over the no-nonsense approach that worked so well at his previous stop. His desire for discipline became particularly apparent during one Robert Morris practice.

After one of Rice's players missed a layup, everybody on the practice floor had to start doing push-ups or sit-ups. That included Rice's parents, who happened to pick an inopportune moment to walk into the gym.

"His mother said, 'I'm not watching practice anymore. I got my exercise earlier in the day,' " Rice's father quipped as he told the story.

Improved discipline should help upgrade the defense. Rice earned a reputation as a defense-minded coach during his three seasons at Robert Morris. The Colonials finished second in the Northeast Conference in field-goal percentage defense (.426) in 2009 and led the league in that category last season (.407).

Although Rutgers finished in the top half of the Big East in overall field-goal percentage defense as recently as 2008-09, the Scarlet Knights haven't been nearly as effective in conference play. Rutgers' field-goal percentage defense in actual Big East games has ranked in the bottom half of the league standings in each of the past eight seasons. Last season, the Scarlet Knights ranked 15th in the 16-team league in that category as they allowed Big East opponents to make 47.2 percent of their shots.

"I'm a defensive coach, first and foremost," Rice said. "If you're not defending, you're not playing. ... If you're not going to be a good teammate, staying in your stance and defending with urgency, I think you're not going to be very successful for me.

"Look at the last decade and who's been successful in the Big East. Connecticut leads the league in shot blocking every year, it seems. Pittsburgh has that defensive mentality. They don't beat themselves. There's Villanova, with all their guards and how they pressure the ball. We have to become a better defensive team."

Rebuilding that defense could take time. Rice succeeded at Robert Morris by substituting frequently. Eight guys on his team played at least 19 minutes per game last season, and nobody averaged more than 27 minutes. All those substitutions assured that Robert Morris could maintain its defensive intensity throughout the game.

Rutgers' lack of depth -- particularly in the frontcourt -- could alter Rice's strategy. Rice usually relies almost exclusively on man-to-man defense, but he may be forced to utilize more zones this season.

"Usually, I'm not a big zone guy," he said, "but when you're dealing with how thin our frontcourt is and the lack of size and strength, you're going to have to do some different things defensively."

Winning resume
Mike Rice takes over Rutgers' program after a successful three-year tenure at Robert Morris, in the Northeast Conference. Here's a look at his year-by-year record.
2007-0826-816-2NIT first round
2008-0924-1115-3NCAA first round
2009-1023-1215-3NCAA first round
Totals73-3146-82 NCAAs, 1 NIT
Rice certainly has gotten his message across to his players. He wasted no time preaching the importance of defense and showing how it helped his previous teams succeed. If Rutgers fails to do a better job of stopping people this season, it won't be due to a lack of effort.

"He's definitely passionate about the defensive end," Mitchell said. "You have to be. If you want to win in this league, you have to get stops and you have to make plays. Coach Rice is definitely a believer in field-goal percentage defense and how when it's under a certain percentage, you can be successful. He definitely reminds us every day and shows us Robert Morris film."

The year before Rice arrived at Robert Morris, the Colonials had gone 17-11 under Mark Schmidt, who left to take the job at St. Bonaventure. He inherited a program with four returning starters. Rice took Robert Morris' program to another level, but it already was in decent shape when he took over.

That's not the case at Rutgers, which was a combined 30 games below .500 during the four-year tenure of predecessor Fred Hill, who resigned under pressure in April. Hill's record included a 13-57 mark in Big East competition.

Hill's two most highly regarded recruits transferred in the past year, with Mike Rosario going to Florida and Gregory Echenique heading to Creighton.

All those facts indicate Rice has a long rebuilding project ahead of him, but he doesn't dwell on the obstacles. He's too busy focusing on the positive aspects of his new situation.

He's in the Big East.

He's in the New York market.

As far as Rice is concerned, Rutgers has all the elements in place to build a winning program. And he believes he's the man to get it done.

"It's a sleeping giant," Rice said. "There's no reason why Rutgers can't compete for Big East championships."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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