By Matt Sugam
NEW YORK – Mike Rice has been preaching three words to his team.
“Why not us?”
Three syllables that mean so much.
Why can’t they be a winning team? Why can’t they finish in the top half of the Big East? Why can’t they be the team that turns this Rutgers’ program around and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991?
With a 58-56 win over St. John’s (9-5, 1-2 Big East), they’ve taken their first steps in doing so. Rutgers (11-3) is 2-1 in the Big East for just the third time in program history since joining the conference in 1995.
“Small steps,” Mike Rice said. “There’s always a process in building programs and it’s very important to be 2-1 because maybe you can get to 3-1 and that’s what good teams do. Good teams grind those type of games out.”
In doing so, Rutgers has achieved a goal that seldom occurs for this program. They’re in the top half of the Big East, sitting in sole possession of sixth place.
Or as they like to say, on the left side of the board.
“To be on the left side of the board is a great thing,” senior wing Dane Miller said.
Especially for a program that is so used to being on the right.
“I know for me and for Dane, like you said, it’s the first time we’ve been there,” senior forward Austin Johnson said. “So we just want to keep on winning and do something that hasn’t been done here in such a long time.”
But there’s a lot of the season left. And 2-1 won’t mean much if they don’t end up finishing in the top half of the Big East.
However, this is a team that has matured. The talented freshman class of last year is now sophomores and they actually have senior leadership.
“This team is growing up a little bit. They’re toughing up,” Rice said. “And we’ll see how they respond after they’ve won two in a row. People are going to start patting them on the back and telling them how good they are and they just have to keep grinding. Keep their head down and focused.”
Which is easier said than done. But Rice isn’t worried about keeping his team even keeled.
“That’s what I do best. Bring them back down to reality,” Rice said. “We’ll talk about it. We’ll really sit down and discuss how to handle success. That’s one of the conversations I haven’t had yet, so we’re really going to sit down and discuss what we need to do to improve and to keep getting better and to stay hungry. That’s something our seniors have to do and our captains have to do.”
And keep those three words in mind.
“Why not us?” Rice said. “There’s some top teams in this league, but the rest of this league – I watch games. I’m a fan like you guys are. Why not us? We have some depth, we have some talent now. Just trust the formula. Trust each other and we’re going to be fine.”