11/16/2010 12:40 AM ET
Rutgers wins before empty house
Coach Rice is passionate, but students apathetic
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Not even Mike Rice's passion for his Scarlet Knights can get fans in the stands. (AP)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- There were times during his team's 68-53 victory over Fairfield on Monday night when the sound of Mike Rice bellowing out instructions to his players was the loudest sound inside the Rutgers Athletic Center.

If reporters had been asked to transcribe his comments from the press box 40 feet above the floor, it wouldn't have been a problem.

That is both good and bad news for the state of the Scarlet Knights.

It's good because it reveals the extent of Rice's passion, will to win and commitment to getting the most out of his undermanned roster.

And it's bad because it underscored just how small (3,810) and apathetic the Rutgers crowd was.

At a school with more than 37,000 students, the "student section' was more than half empty and the band accounted for one-third of those present.

"I looked around and I didn't see the arena kind of packed, but I've never really seen it when a lot of people were in it so I couldn't really picture it," said 6-foot-10 forward Kadeem Jack of Queens, N.Y., who sat behind the Rutgers bench and will enroll as a redshirt in January.

Mike Rice Sr., the coach's father and the longtime radio analyst for the Portland Trail Blazers, sat courtside to support his son in his home coaching debut. But he was flanked by a dozen empty black seats.

Rice won the game. Now he must win back the RAC.

The Rutgers players wore new Nike uniforms and the RAC features a new floor that replaces the old portable one.

Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti told Gannett New Jersey the school has a "variety of seven-figure commitments" for overhauling the RAC and building a new practice facility.

Rice has taken a strong first step to rebuild the program by securing a seven-member recruiting class for 2011 that is ranked among the Top 10 nationally.

Two of those players -- Jack and Paterson, N.J. point guard Myles Mack -- sat courtside, imagining how they might transform the program, and the building, in coming years.

"It will be an exciting atmosphere for everybody that's playing," Jack said. "A lot of us coming in next year, I think we're going to generate that type of attention with the fans."

Said Mack: "I think it's going to happen because our recruiting class is one of the top in the country and we have good players coming so I think it's going to be a very packed crowd next year."

Within the past few years, Rutgers has beaten ranked teams Georgetown and Villanova right here.

It wasn't so long ago that the RAC was one of the most intimidating places for visiting teams to play.

Perhaps discouraged by the four-year tenure of former coach Fred Hill, during which the team went 47-77, the fans have stopped showing up.

"Once they start winning they'll be back," said former Rutgers star Marquis Webb, who now works for the Hoop Group, which is promoting this Philly Hoop Group Classic.

This Rutgers team showed better, crisper ball movement than any incarnation has over the past few years.

They aren't the biggest, fastest or most talented players in the Big East, but Rice got them to play hard.

Seniors Jonathan Mitchell (15 points) and Mike Coburn (14 points) and sophomore Dane Miller (12 points, six rebounds) led the way offensively.

The defense limited Fairfield stars Derek Needham (5 of 20 shooting) and Warren Edney (5 of 13), forcing the Stags to shoot just 29 percent for the game.

Rutgers outscored Fairfield, the favorite to win the MAAC, 30-8 in the paint, but was out-rebounded 40-35.

Because of their size and talent deficit, the Knights will likely take their lumps against the Pitts, Syracuses and Villanovas of the Big East.

But in the long run, Rice knows winning will bring the fans back. He has no choice.

"It's going to be word of mouth," he said. "It's going to be grassroots marketing. You can put up as many bulletin boards [on the New Jersey Turnpike]. It's going to be, is the pride back? Is the intensity? Is the buzz back?

"A lot of people, fans, students, alumni, they'll grow to like and appreciate this team and support this team because I think it represents the toughness and the intensity and the perseverance that a lot of people have come to like about Rutgers."

If the money keeps flowing in this tough economy, the RAC will get rebuilt physically.

Now it's up to Rice, his staff and his players to bring the building's mojo back.

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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