By Matt Sugam
PISCATAWAY – Three years. That’s the grace period a head coach at a major college program gets.
Three years to recruit their own players. Three years to implement their own system. Three years to start turning the program around.
It’s something Rutgers third-year head coach Mike Rice is well aware of.
“Year three is definitely – I have a lot of my players. A couple guys have been here for three years with me,” Rice told SNY.tv. “So developing a level of talent, we have that. Developing a mentality. I think we have that. Developing things that we do off the floor – 3.0 [GPA], guys making sure they don’t get in trouble – we have that.”
They also have a head coach in Rice who made a name for himself in just three years at Robert Morris, taking the Northeast Conference school to the NCAA Tournament in his final two.
Parlaying that into his job at Rutgers, Rice exceeded expectations his first year. As a coach trying to prove he belonged in the Big East paired with three seniors – James Beatty, Jonathan Mitchell and Mike Coburn – looking to do the same, Rice found early success.
The 15-17 season with an undermanned, undersized and under-talented team gave Rutgers fans a sense of optimism. Mix that with the best recruiting class in school history coming in the following season, and their expectations were high. And so were Rice’s.
The goal was an NCAA Tournament berth. The first one since 1991. While they showed flashes – like defeating top 10 teams in Florida and UConn – their youth showed far too often en route to a 14-18 year.
“It was difficult,” Rice said of last season. “It was an experience I’ve probably never have had and I hope to never have relying on so many young players.
“To win in this league you need pros and experience. We’re now garnering some of that experience and you just learn from experience. You learn from the past and hopefully I’ve done that.”
No, he hasn’t changed his style of coaching. He’s still the fiery perfectionist that sets high demands on his players. He and the coaching staff spent the offseason “attacking their team’s weaknesses.” Mainly, maturity and further developing the players’ bodies and minds.
And Rice can already see the difference in his team.
Last year, he and his staff were constantly on top of his team that featured seven freshmen, keeping tabs on every little thing they did.
“We continued to monitor them not minute by minute, but it was almost second by second, making sure that they’re doing the right things,” Rice said. “And that’s difficult to coach like that and that’s difficult to play like that because of the fact that you don’t have much freedom and you don’t have much fun.”
This year, Rice can un-magnify that microscope.
“Now you can trust them,” Rice said. “And it’s all about trusting their instincts. I couldn’t trust their instincts last year.”
Through the trials and tribulations of last season and the offseason, that’s no longer the case.
“So now, kind of developing those instincts and making sure they’re developing good instincts, you can let them – because believe me, I want to call no offense. I want to call no defense. I want them to do that. I want them to monitor and police themselves, but it takes a while with young teams.”
But Rice doesn’t have as much time to wait anymore. Not when he’s entering his third season. And he knows that.
While the head coach hasn’t publicly put a number on how many wins this team should have or spoke of postseason aspirations, there’s no doubt of what the public perceives. This is a team that could be on the NCAA Tournament bubble and should be an NIT team.
After all, it is year three.
“Now comes hopefully success. It’s no secret that year three, year four, year five you got to make a jump,” Rice said, adding “Now it’s how much. How many wins can you get in the Big East? How many wins can you get overall? This team will be game by game, minute by minute, because that’s what we’re focused on right now. The first minute of St. Peter’s [Friday night] is the first minute that I’m focused on right now.”