12/29/2010 3:29 PM ET
Rice, Rutgers face big learning curve
Big East schedule now looms for Scarlet Knights
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Mike Rice would like to see his Rutgers team get tougher during Big East play. (AP)

NEW YORK -- Within the first few minutes of his team's 78-55 loss to North Carolina Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, Mike Rice took his jacket off and wore the look of a man on a long, slow burn.

He shook his head in disbelief.

Shouted at his team.

Faced his bench and pleaded with his players.

And when his first game as a head coach at the Garden was over, he used the "s" word to describe his team.

"I just think we had a lack of determination," Rice said. "We were soft and had no determination."

Everybody loves to win, but some guys hate losing more than they love winning.

Rice, in his first year as head coach of an undermanned Rutgers team after taking Robert Morris to two NCAA tournament appearances, looks to all the world like the latter.

He's not interested in any big-picture discussions about how good his team can be, might be, in the long term thanks to an incoming seven-man recruiting class ranked among the top-10 in the country.

He's only interested in making this team picked 15th in the 16-team Big East work as hard as it can on a daily basis. He knows that's their only shot at competing in perhaps the toughest conference in the nation.

"We're going to see our weaknesses," he said. "We're going to improve. We're going to keep scratching and clawing. But we can't get sad, we have to get to the next play and become tougher; just a tougher-minded team."

The good news is that the five-game series with the Tar Heels -- which actually was a five-game sweep by Carolina -- ended mercifully before a good crowd of 9,401 who braved the snowy conditions.

The bad news is that the Big East schedule now looms.

Rutgers' next five games look like this: at No. 8 Villanova (Jan. 2), Marquette (Jan. 5), Providence (Jan. 8), at No. 4 UConn (Jan. 11) and No. 9 Georgetown (Jan. 15).

That's three top-10 teams in their next five games.

"In the Big East, teams with winning records in the Big East...they're going to do everything they can to improve, to get better, attack their weaknesses," Rice said. "This team, they don't come with the right mindset and mentality every single day."

Other than Jonathan Mitchell's game-high 20 points, not a single Rutgers player reached double-figures.

Dane Miller, the team's most talented player, shot 3 of 12 and finished with eight points and three rebounds.

Rutgers has a few nice pieces in Mitchell, Miller and freshmen Gilvydas Biruta and Mike Poole, but Rice knew when he took the job that this team is vastly under-manned for the Big East.

Mike Rosario is at Florida. Gregory Echenique is at Creighton. And Hamady N'Diaye is in the NBA.

Put Rosario and Echenique on this current roster and Rutgers would be a vastly different team.

But those players are long gone and the future belongs to players like 6-10 forward Kadeem Jack, who now sits at the end of Rutgers' bench while he redshirts and awaits the 2011-12 season.

It belongs to players like Myles Mack, now running the point for Bob Hurley at St. Anthony, and Jerome Seagears, now filling it up for Flora McDonald (N.C.) Academy.

But before any of them puts on a Rutgers uniform comes a long and brutal 18-game Big East schedule that Rice called the "final exam."

Rutgers hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, yet some day Rice's team may be the favorite when they're in a high-profile game at Madison Square Garden.

And in fact, the man who suffered a long, slow burn against North Carolina, has no doubt that day will eventually come.

"We'll get there," he said resolutely.

And you have to believe they will, or the coach will just about die trying.

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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