Mike Rice is entering his third season as Rutgers' men's basketball coach -- but he hasn't lost any of his feistiness.
Upon greeting him at Big East media day on Wednesday at the New York Athletic Club, Rice immediately took issue with a story ESPN colleague Eamonn Brennan wrote last week, in which he ranked Rutgers' upcoming nonconference schedule among the 10 worst in the country.
Rice was half-teasing, but had a serious response to the criticism as well.
"I laugh at it because, I think there’s some very good games," Rice said. "Whether it’s Iona, at Princeton, at Ole Miss, BU ... I think because we’re not playing in an exempted event, that it took away some of the marquee-ness of it. But I need time to prepare with this team. I need time to adjust with this team.
"Year 3 is -- you gotta make sure your team is moving forward. But I still think there’s some very good quality opponents that will allow us to prepare for the Big East."
It is indeed an important year for the 42-year-old, who is 29-35 in his first two seasons at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights won five Big East games in 2010-11, and six in 2011-12, and are still searching for their first NCAA tournament bid since 1991.
"I feel very good," Rice said Wednesday, when asked about the state of the program. "We’re building. What wins in this league are pros and veterans and experienced players. We’re getting to be where we have some experience, and we’re getting to be where we have some talent. We’ve won some recruiting wars. Again, the next step is moving up the ladder, so to speak, in the win/loss column."
His fellow coaches aren't expecting a big jump this season -- Rutgers was picked to finish 11th in the 15-team conference in the Big East preseason coaches poll. That's exactly where they finished last season, tied with St. John's.
"They made a leap physically," Rice said of the three guards. "They made a leap with how hard they’re working in the offseason. I have no idea if that’s gonna translate to efficient production when the light comes on. I think it will."
The loss of power forward Gilvydas Biruta (9.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who transferred to Rhode Island, will hurt. But in his place is 6-foot-9, 250-pounder Wally Judge, a former McDonald's High School All-American who transferred from Kansas State. "He is the most physical and athletic player I’ve probably ever coached as a head coach," Rice said of Judge.
And the biggest key could be senior swingman Dane Miller -- a player with a bundle of talent, who's been frustratingly passive at times, particularly on the offensive end of the floor.
Miller was a unanimous selection to the Big East All-Rookie team three years ago, but saw his scoring average dip to a career-low 7.9 points per game as a junior, at least in part because he took only 6.1 shots per game.
When asked about that Wednesday, Miller cited a lack of confidence at times last season. I really don’t know why I lost so much confidence," Miller said. "There was a point in time when I lost so much confidence that I didn’t enjoy coming to practice, I didn’t enjoy just being on campus. I don’t know why or how I lost it. Maybe it was a mental thing."
Miller sounds like has a healthier mindset coming into this season. "We all know Dane has the physical tools," Rice said. "It’s just, can he bring it -- not just on a daily basis, can he bring it on a minute by minute basis? I like what he’s showing me right now, and so we’ll see."
Indeed, we will. Rutgers should be one of the more intriguing teams in the conference this season. They've proven themselves capable of pulling off big upsets in Rice's first two years at the helm, with three victories over Top 10 opponents. But can they be more consistent?
Are they ready for a big breakthrough, like Rutgers' 6-0 football team appears to be?
"In the end, this team controls its own destiny," Rice said. "If they wanna be good, I think we can. How many (wins), what’s the number? I’m not sure. They just have to work and understand what it takes to be consistent in this league, what it takes to be successful."