With former McDonald’s All-American Wally Judge eligible and the duo of Kadeem Jack and Derrick Randall more seasoned, Austin Johnson was not expected to be a major contributor for Rutgers this year.
Six games into the Big East schedule, Johnson never got the memo.
Johnson offered up his starting spot to sophomore Jerome Seagears at the start of Big East play, understanding the value of a three-guard lineup. With Johnson coming off the bench, and still getting his minutes, Rutgers is 2-2 and fell just short of an upset over Notre Dame last night.
Averaging four points per game in his first three years, Johnson’s numbers are doubled off the bench this season. Johnson averages 8.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game off the bench as a senior.
“I can’t say exactly what it is, but I’m a more confident player,” Johnson said after seven points in a victory over South Florida. “I can sit down and really take it in before [head coach Mike Rice] puts me in. I have a good feel for the game when I get in and I’m still going to get my minutes.”
Butting heads with Notre Dame star Jack Cooley in the 69-66 loss to the Irish, Johnson held his own against one of the best in the business. Active on the boards, Johnson led the Scarlet Knights (12-5, 3-3) to a strong paint performance.
Rutgers kept the game from getting away by out-rebounding and out-blocking the seasoned Irish bigs.
Johnson provided six points and six rebounds in the loss to Notre Dame, but caused problems on both sides for Notre Dame.
“They're a tough group,” said Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton. “They have three really good guards and a big guy that can play. That automatically makes them a tough out.”
Johnson, who describes himself as crafty on the court, continues to create opportunities in 20 minutes per game off the bench. Perhaps most importantly, Johnson’s minutes with starters Jack and Judge often in foul trouble are critical.
That, said the 23-year old, comes with maturity.
“I just want to win,” Johnson said. “I don’t mind [not starting] because it’s best for this team and I’m playing well. … We just have to keep it going and keeping following coach Rice’s plan.”
Rutgers, tied for sixth in the conference standings, hosts St. John’s Wednesday before the toughest four-game slate of the year. Traveling to Connecticut and Cincinnati, Rutgers then hosts Louisville and Georgetown at the RAC.