PISCATAWAY — Mike Rice’s men’s basketball teams at Rutgers often look as though they’re in a hurry to catch up to the rest of the Big East Conference.
The focus has been on an up-tempo style for a roster dominated by young, talented guards.
The frenzied pace is still part of the plan after a 14-18 (6-12 Big East) finish last year in which seven freshmen took up most of the space on the roster. But one player, junior transfer Wally Judge, is bucking the third-year coach’s game plan when it comes to tempo.
Judge, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward, sat out last season after arriving from Kansas State. The high school All-America could be the answer for Rutgers, which desperately needs an inside game to balance its guard-oriented attack.
“The year off taught me to slow down,” Judge said. “It’s not always about being the fastest. I’ve learned to think the game through, slow down and become a better player.”
Music to the ears of Rutgers fans, who are starving for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991. It’s been a sea of mediocrity ever since, as coaches and players have shuffled through the Scarlet Knights’ doors.
But Rice has a brand he’s built, and he’s sticking to it. And Judge is no rebel since the slowdown in his game was prodded by the former Robert Morris coach, who sees Judge as the key to his frontcourt this season.
“Wally had no pressure on him last year and he just focused on improving his weaknesses,” Rice said. “When he gives himself a break and doesn’t think about the pressure, he’s remarkable. He’s someone we’re going to rely very heavily on.”
Judge is joined by sophomores Derrick Randall (6-8), Kadeem Jack (6-9) and Greg Lewis (6-9) , and veteran senior Austin Johnson (6-8). It’s no secret that Rutgers needs to rebound and get to the foul line more if it is to flex any muscle in the Big East, where opponents went to the line 152 more times and hit 98 more free throws in 18 league games. Overall, Rutgers allowed 189 more attempts from the line and ended minus-128 in free throws made.
“We did a lot of fouling in the post last year,” Rice said. “We were put in a position where we were always counterpunching. In the Big East, you have to rebound and get to the line.”
Rutgers is counting on Judge and a more physical frontcourt. Under the direction of strength coach Mike Johansen, the players have concentrated on gaining weight and muscle. According to Rice, his team has gained between 10 to 15 pounds per man.
“I gained like 11 pounds,” sophomore guard Myles Mack said. “I learned last year how hard it is to win a Division I game. It takes hard work and dedication. The strength and conditioning will help. You feel stronger and you see the difference on the court. I think we can do big things if we stick together as a team.”
The 5-9 Mack and the 6-2 Elijah Carter, both products of St. Anthony High in Jersey City, helped provide some of the highlights for Rutgers during their freshman campaigns. Rutgers knocked off No. 8 Connecticut, the defending national champion, 67-60, and also earned an 85-83 double-overtime victory against No. 10 Florida.
Carter came up with 31 points and seven rebounds in the upset of the Gators and led the team with a 13.8 scoring average which included 24 against Louisville, 19 vs. the Huskies, and 23 against Villanova in the Big East tournament. Either Mack (9.8 ppg) or Carter led Rutgers in scoring in 21 games.
The depth in the backcourt includes sophomore Jerome Seagers, who, along with Mack and Carter, combined to start 76 games and average 25 minutes. The wing players include 6-5 junior Mike Poole, 6-6 senior Dane Miller, 6-5 Malik Kone and junior college transfer Mike Garrett (6-5).
“Up-tempo is our goal,” Carter said, “but we need to get the ball inside and take some of the pressure off the guards and have an inside-outside team.”
The inside part will be spearheaded by Judge, who spent his year sitting out working on the range of his jump shot and his free throw accuracy. His college free throw average is just 52.6.
“There were days when I’d go to the gym to shoot at night and find myself there at 6 in the morning,” Judge said. “When I first got to Kansas State, I felt like I had to prove everything at once. When you’re young, you want to run through a brick wall. I’ve learned to slow things down and walk around the wall.
“I’m shooting better from 15 feet out and attacking the rim. I don’t want to rush my shots or speed up so that I foul. I’m going to take my time and let the game come to me.”