By Matt Sugam
They were stunned.
“I was very shocked,” senior forward Austin Johnson said on a conference call with reporters. “I feel like me and my teammates were all shocked.”
Even though the reason for Rice’s suspension was for inappropriate behavior and language directed at players during practice, Johnson doesn’t remember such instances.
“No, I don’t recall seeing anything specifically,” Johnson said. “All I recall is being in high intensity practices day in and day out. And it was to be expected. We knew what they expected of us, so we tried to come in with the same level of intensity, so even if it was high intensity, we reciprocated and tried to give it back, so that’s just the demand of each and every one of our practices.”
Which is why the team has its head coach’s back in this trying time.
“We’re all in coach Rice’s corner,” Johnson said. “We support fully what he’s done and we’ll stick to the game plan and me and my teammates are going to come together and play as hard as we can for coach Rice and for [associate head] coach [David] Cox.”
The latter is who will be Rutgers head coach for the next two weeks while Rice serves his suspension. Something the team will have to adapt to.
“They’re two different people, but everybody here has bought into the main game plan of Rutgers basketball, so even though the intensity and the passion of Rice – they may be different, but Cox brings things to this team as well,” Johnson said. “He’s very calm and confident and collected, so when he comes up to you feel good about yourself.”
And despite the jolting news, the team knew they couldn’t dwell on it. Not in the middle of the season with their next game on Sunday.
“We knew that we had to rebound fairly quickly and get back focused to the objective at hand and we’re trying to do something big here,” Johnson said. “Go 7-2 on Sunday against a very good UAB team, so we focused back in very quickly. We understand what’s going on but at the same time, the motive is one thing and that’s try and get a win on Sunday.”
They’ll have to do so with an interim head coach and a black cloud over their heads. They’ll need to put the blinders on as the public focuses on their suspended coach.
Despite all that, Johnson is confident Rutgers won’t stumble.
“We’ll be good. We’ll definitely be good,” Johnson said. “We’ll miss Rice, but at the same time we’re not losing anything when we got coach Cox at the helm.”