The public outcry in January about Rutgers coach Fred Hill’s future, and the speculation about losing his job, subsided with a strong three-week stretch that had the Scarlet Knights daring to think about a postseason bid.
But with four losses in five games to close the regular season, the subject of Hill’s status is again the hot topic heading into the Big East tournament.
No. 14 seed Rutgers (15-16, 5-13 Big East) plays No. 11 seed Cincinnati on Tuesday at 9 p.m. at Madison Square in the first round, and 30 hours before tip-off Hill found himself answering questions as to whether his next loss would be the final one of his Rutgers career.
“I’ve never once, for one second, ever thought …I’m the coach at Rutgers,’’ Hill said. “I will be the coach at Rutgers. I think we've done a terrific job. I've never thought for one second about any game meaning anything more than the next game. I've never considered not being the coach at Rutgers. So, there's nothing to think about.’’
Maybe not for Hill, but for plenty of others it is not an open-and-shut case.
Rutgers is 47-76, including 13-57 in the Big East, in Hill’s four seasons. The Scarlet Knights lost their only Big East tournament game under Hill, and if not for the conference expanding from 12 teams to allow all 16 members in beginning with last year’s tournament, Rutgers would be home for the fourth straight year.
Yet, with the realization Rutgers hasn’t been ranked in the Associated Press for nearly three decades, and with a 19-year drought since its last NCAA Tournament appearance, progress may be measured beyond wins and losses.
Rutgers’ five conference wins are more than it had in five of the last seven years. The Scarlet Knights are completing their 15th season in the Big East, and only three times did they win seven or more league games.
Factor in Rutgers recovered from an 0-8 league start to go 5-5 in its last 10 games, and did so after center, leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Greg Echenique was lost to an eye injury, and then transferred to Creighton, and Hill sees plenty of progress.
| Rutgers coach Fred Hill|
"I look at all the positives and the steps that we've taken,’’ Hill said. “I really don't want to talk about losing players, but when you have an injury and you have to revamp and go through changes, what I look at is the unbelievable job these guys have done in showing where they're headed.
“They’re the only team in the Big East. Maybe it’s a dubious honor, but for circumstances beyond our control we started out 0-8. To come back and win five games, no team has ever done that. I don't know if people realize how hard that is to do, and that’s a great honor for this group of guys.”
Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti has been quiet publicly throughout the season. He said during a television interview all evaluations are done after a season, and that would be the case with men’s basketball.
But one of those positives Hill mentioned is senior Hamady Ndiaye, who was forced to play double the minutes he was supposed to after Echenique’s injury. Ndiaye responded by being named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Ndiaye, who is the Scarlet Knights’ lone senior, thought there was enough uncertainty in January to speak to his teammates about Hill’s status, but he doesn’t think it is necessary to rehash it heading into the Big East tournament.
"That's one of the things we went past a long time ago,’’ he said. “When we lost the eight games and rumors were all over the place, and we heard all kinds of things about coach Hill, one thing I've talked about with my teammates (was) we're trying to finish this season. That’s the most important thing.
“We don't know what's going to happen today or the next day or whatever, but we have to finish this.”
In discussing why he does not believe returning for a fifth season is even a question, Hill points to a pair of reasons.
The first is former Rutgers star Quincy Douby, who led Rutgers to a 7-9 Big East mark as a junior, a year after the Scarlet Knights were 2-14 in the league. Douby averaged 25.4 points per game as a junior.
Hill draws a parallel between current sophomore guard Mike Rosario and Douby, particularly because their statistics as sophomores are similar.
Douby averaged 15.1 points and shot 39.2 percent from the field, including 33.8 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore. This season Rosario is averaging 16.4 points per game and shooting 37.6 percent from the field, including 32.3 percent from 3-point range.
Hill’s second reason is South Florida standout Dominique Jones, who averaged 18.1 points as a sophomore, but is averaging 21.3 points per game as a junior. Not coincidentally, Hill contends, South Florida went 9-22 (4-14 Big East) last season, but is 19-9 this season, including 9-9 in the Big East.
|Former RU star Quincy Douby|
"All I've ever done is look at, How do we move the program forward? Where we’re going,’ and I like what I see,’’ Hill said. “We're losing one guy. I love (Ndiaye) to death, but he's the only guy we're losing. We’re bringing everyone else back.’’
It means Rosario, second-leading scorer Jonathan Mitchell, unanimous all-Big East rookie team member Dane Miller and junior college transfer and point guard James Beatty all will have a year’s experience playing together.
But Ndiaye’s departure creates a hole in the middle, with little-used freshman Brian Okam and undersized freshman Austin Johnson as the only players on the current roster with experience at center.
Rutgers is involved with several centers on the recruiting trail, but none are signed and none have given verbal commitments. Hill said the plan is to sign a pair of centers in the spring to make it a four-man recruiting class. Wing Gilvydas Biruta and signed shooting guard Austin Carroll signed with Rutgers in November.
“Gilvydas Biruta is going to be one helluva basketball player. Austin Carroll can really shoot the ball,’’ Hill said. “When you look at that, that’s a deep, experienced, talented team, and you expect to make those jumps …a South Florida type of jump.’’