By Corey Mallonee
SYRACUSE, NY – Head Coach Mike Rice’s return from a 3-game suspension didn’t exactly go as planned, as the Scarlet Knights, riding a 5-game win streak, suffered a gut-check 78-53 loss at the hands of the No. 7 Syracuse Orange.
While the circumstances of his return were about as bad as they could be, the players were glad to have their coach back on the sidelines.
“It was great [having him back],” said senior forward Austin Johnson. “That’s our leader, just like old times. I mean, everyone acts like he was gone for such a long time but it was only three games.”
Rice, who has been attending anger management courses after reportedly throwing basketballs at players’ heads during practices, noticeably kept his temper in check on the sidelines, even as Rutgers fell victim to a blistering 24-0 Syracuse run.
After the Scarlet Knights took a 20-18 lead, they failed to score a point for the final eight minutes of the first half. A Syracuse team that has had trouble closing games out of late actually extended its lead in the second half, outscoring the Scarlet Knights 37-30 in the second and dropping the visitors to 1-23 all-time in the Carrier Dome.
Still, the players didn’t see any difference in Rice’s behavior.
“Nah, nothing different. Same old Rice that we know and expect,” Johnson said. “He was intense, he was leading us through the tough times, it’s just that we as players need to do a better job of responding to adversity.”
Rice himself acknowledged he was happy to be back, but quickly shifted focus back to the game at hand when asked what it was like to return.
“I’m very excited [to be back]. I loved the last three or four days, the preparation,” he said. “This is a tough one to swallow because I would have liked to put a little bit better showing [but] these things happen in the Big East.”
Rice will have plenty of preparation now that he’s back if his team wants to clinch the postseason berth his job reportedly depends on.
“Our defense was a no-show after we stopped scoring. We just [lost] that energy, that toughness, that passion to defend, and this team has to get that,” he said. “This team—if it lacks anything, it’s toughness. It’s a response. And we have to respond better to some of the things that are taking place in games…. You end runs with toughness plays, and we just didn’t have any of those. We were very soft, whether it’s turning the ball over or it’s finishing. We were very soft in that run.”
The players know they have their work cut out for them. Any lingering good feeling from the team pulling together in the face of its coach’s suspension evaporated by the time the first half buzzer sounded.
“I think we didn’t respond like [Coach Rice] wanted us to, but the next game we have to be more focused so we can get a better result,” Johnson said.
Senior wing Dane Miller was more succinct.
“I feel like we let him down,” he said.