Tommie Patterson can speak firsthand about the ability of new Rutgers coach Mike Rice to unearth recruiting gems in the Garden State.
During the 2007-08 basketball season, when he was an assistant coach at Paterson (N.J.) Eastside High School, Patterson tried to interest several Division I teams in a diminutive yet explosive combo guard named Karon Abraham.
"Karon had a couple of low D-2 schools [interested] and a couple guys thought that he was just too small to play at the Division I level," said Patterson, now the head coach at Clifton (N.J.) High School. "I called FDU [Fairleigh Dickinson University], and they pretty much gave us the cold shoulder and said that he couldn't play at that level because of his size.
"Finally they said, 'You know what, we don't have any scholarships available right now,' but they could've told us at the beginning."
But in the summer of 2008, Rice, then the head coach at Robert Morris University, was first intrigued by Abraham when he saw him playing with the Playaz Basketball Club at the Joe Brown Memorial tournament in Paterson. His interest piqued when he saw him starring at the prestigious Adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas.
"My assistant coach, Andy Toole, brought me to a game in Las Vegas, and I was watching somebody else and saw a 5-6, 5-7 kid score, and he just never kept backing down," Rice recalled in March during the NCAA tournament in Providence, R.I. "He just kept attacking."
After averaging 26.2 points and 5.6 assists as junior at Eastside, Abraham signed with Robert Morris in November 2008.
Abraham, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds on the Robert Morris roster, proceeded to win Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year honors last season after leading the Colonials in scoring (13.6 points), 3-pointers (85) and free-throw percentage (.851).
When the No. 15-seeded Colonials nearly ousted No. 2 Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Providence, Abraham poured in a game-high 23 points, hitting five of 11 3-pointers.
Playing with a mohawk haircut, Abraham put most of the sold-out crowd behind Robert Morris in the second half on a pair of highlight-reel plays. His first came from just beyond the arc, when he banked an off-balance 3-pointer and crashed to the court on a foul. He made the free throw for the rare four-point play.
He followed that by scooting down the baseline and tossing up a one-handed layup that went up and in for an eight-point lead and brought out cheers of "Robert Morris! Robert Morris!"
"He is gutsy," Rice said of Abraham. "God, I love him."
Now that Rice, 41, has agreed to succeed Fred Hill at Rutgers, he will have to find new recruiting gems in New Jersey and other areas.
With the transfers of sophomores Mike Rosario (Florida), Greg Echenique (Creighton) and Pat Jackson (undecided), the Scarlet Knights will have just eight scholarship players remaining on the roster. That includes two incoming freshman who signed under Hill, 6-8 forward Gilvydas Biruta of St. Benedict's Prep and 6-3 shooting guard Austin Carroll of Brewster (N.H.) Academy.
Rice, who will be introduced officially at a news conference Thursday afternoon at 3:15, has already missed a key recruiting window in April.
"Whatever kids are out there to recruit, he's gotta get out there and recruit," Hall of Fame St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley said.
Although the short term could be rough, Rice should benefit in the long term.
Because he will be coaching at the state university of New Jersey, Rice should be able to draw from a wider, and theoretically more talented, pool of players than he did at Robert Morris, which he guided to back-to-back Northeast Conference tournament titles and NCAA tournament appearances.
Rice has the backing of key coaches and personnel in New Jersey and New York, including Hurley, St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle, Mount Vernon coach Bob Cimmino and Hoop Group president Rob Kennedy.
"I think he's a good guy," Hurley said of Rice. "I think Karon Abraham from Eastside is enjoying playing for him at Robert Morris."
And those relationships will be critical considering Villanova coach Jay Wright, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and UConn coach Jim Calhoun have long been raiding New Jersey of its top players.
"He's a workaholic," Patterson said of Rice. "If you're a little bit older, you don't necessarily put that same time in because you're kind of set in your ways. But I think he has that mentality where he's going to get out, he's going to work hard. He's going try to keep these guys at home."
Rice served as an assistant coach under Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh and he has coached against Pittsburgh and Syracuse at Robert Morris.
Rice knows what it takes to recruit in the Big East. It takes tough, competitive players like Abraham who refuse to give up.
"They don't back down," Rice said in March. "I love that mentality. If they miss one or two shots or have a critical turnover, I'm going to be critical at times and I'm going to have a sense of urgency in my discussion with them. But they don't bat an eye. They're not feeling sorry for themselves. They don't pout, they just come back and keep fighting.
"That's what I love about, whether it's the New Jersey kids I have or my Philadelphia guys. It's the same intensity and toughness that is hard to find."