"We've had never had a winning season in the Big East."
When Rutgers coach Mike Rice uttered those words to me in Las Vegas last week, I was somewhat surprised. Here's a program that's been in the league since 1995 and one that has never finished above the .500 mark. The Scarlet Knights were 9-9 under Kevin Bannon in 1998-99 and 8-8 in the league with Gary Waters at the helm in 2001-02, but has never gotten over the hump.
I'm not going all bold and guaranteeing it'll happen, but I think there's a chance.
Besides Louisville and Syracuse, there just aren't a ton of high-powered teams in the league. Villanova will be down again, Pittsburgh is still dealing with the health of Travon Woodall, Marquette lost its top two players and UConn, which won't be eligible for the NCAA tournament, was ravaged by defections in the offseason.
The first two seasons of the Mike Rice Era have been fairly ho-hum, with a combined 29 victories and 11 league wins. Despite the offseason departure of Gil Biruta (9.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) to Rhode Island, Rice feels as though this year's team could -- if everything goes right -- end "The Streak."
He's got a group of young guards -- Eli Carter (13.8 ppg), Myles Mack (9.8 ppg) and Jerome Seagears (7.7 ppg) that all have a year under their belt now. Versatile senior Dane Miller returns and Rice has a couple of talented big bodies up front: Talented, but raw big man in Kadeem Jack and Kansas State transfer Wally Judge. Rice also said that reserve Derrick Randall has shown strides and he's hopeful that the 6-foot-8 sophomore can eventually become a Gary McGhee-like player who can rebound and defend.
"You can't argue the facts," Rice said of his program's history in the Big East. "You've got to go out there and prove it. I understand why people pick us towards the bottom of the league every year."
Rice said that Jack, who spent much of his childhood in Trinidad, still needs to learn the game. "He needs to understand when to attack and how to read defenses," Rice said. "How to play lower and take a bump."
And Judge? Things didn't exactly work out for him out with Frank Martin in Manhattan, Kan., so the former highly touted prospect out of D.C. decided to come back to the northeast.
"He puts too much pressure on himself," Rice said. "It's hard to live up to being a McDonald's All-American. But he sat out last year and there was no pressure on him. It was all about getting better."
Rice also knows that this would have been much easier had Biruta remained on the team.
"There's no doubt we would have had a great chance to finish over .500 if Gil was still with us," he said. "We're like the Pittsburgh Pirates."
That's not a bad comparison. The Pirates have been irrelevant in baseball for the past two decades, but are fighting for the division title right now and looking to get to the postseason for the first time since 1992. That's still one year later than the last time Rutgers made it to the NCAA tournament.
Again, I'm not sure Rice and the Scarlet Knights are quite ready to squash history, climb over the .500 mark and end the drought of getting to the Big Dance. But with a lineup of Carter, Miller and either Mack or Seagears along with Judge and Mack up front, there's certainly optimism.