Rutgers says ‘it means the world’ to climb in Big East

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The nation got its first real look at Mike Rice last March, when his Rutgers team lost to St. John’s in the Big East Tournament on a questionable call.

With every right to be angry, he sat calmly and collectedly behind the microphone and spoke plainly.

“You can’t control what happens, you control how you respond,” he said. “There was a mistake made, I’m sure they’ll admit it. I made several mistakes, my players made several mistakes…[The Big East] has the greatest officials in America.”

Now Mike Rice is getting his footing and looking to bring his Scarlet Knights to the national stage.

After a 65-58 win over Notre Dame at home on Monday night, Rutgers pulled their record to .500 in the Big East, at 3-3, and improved to 11-8 on the year.

“It means the world to me,” said junior forward Austin Johnson of his team’s climb in the conference, after the game. “I haven’t been on the left side of the board — which shows that we’re in the upper echelon of the Big East for the first time since I’ve been here. So it means a lot.”

Rice’s top two scorers this season are both freshman from his first recruiting class at the head of the program, guards Eli Carter and Myles Mack. Both are in-state products.

Rutgers already has scored a big upset, coming on Jan. 7 over Connecticut, and has a foundation for a future, and it starts with the head coach.

“I liked how unselfish this team was,” Rice said after the win over Notre Dame. “I liked how this team finished. There wasn’t a panic, there wasn’t a nervousness to this team. Which is a positive.”

Rice, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, who has his team out to a 15-3 start, and St. John’s Steve Lavin are leading a resurgence of New York Metro-area basketball that could bring the focus back to the area in years to come.

Willard recently scored a commitment from 2013 Baltimore guard Aquille Carr and Lavin is looking to build on a strong 2011 recruiting class, which includes star freshmen D’Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless.

It’s a bright future for the resurgent lower half of the Big East.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_