Big East preview: Rutgers

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Right now it’s time to look at Rutgers, of the Big East Conference.

My girl Rebecca, a complete basketball head from Queens, went to the Scarlet Knights’ “meet the team” event last Sunday. I’m all about live reports, so I wanted her to tell me what went down.

She said the event started by everyone introducing themselves, after which Coach C. Vivian Stringer talked a little bit. Then they began an open practice.

After team stretching, they began to run drills. Rebecca said there was “lots of weaving,” and that Stringer was “fit to be tied” when her team missed maybe four of the first seven lay-ups in one drill. But they got it together quickly.

The Scarlet Knights ran 4-on-2 breaks, which Rebecca found exciting, and she thought their defensive plays were brilliant. Senior Heather Zurich had an exceptional block on one play – a complete put-back. So it looks like defense will be on tap this year. But Rebecca said some players were perhaps a little eager, coming close to side-tackling their teammates.

It’s still early, and I’m sure Stringer will iron it out. The Hall of Fame coach is pretty good at that.

What I thought was amusing was that when everyone split up to sign autographs, Stringer had the longest line. That’s what happens when a longtime coach sees her floor leaders graduate and releases her autobiography in the same year.

But the lack of recognition issue will work itself out too. This beast of a group of freshmen (third-best recruiting class in the nation last year) will leave its legacy – mark my words. And I don’t think they’ll waste much time getting to it.

To be sure, Rutgers will miss Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson this year. Avajon, selected fifth in the 2008 WNBA draft, lead the Scarlet Knights in assists and was second in scoring last year. Carson, drafted seventh, was the Big East’s defensive player of the year for three consecutive seasons.

The other three starters are still around, however.

Besides being her team’s leading scorer, junior guard Epiphany Prince averaged 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game last year. She was named to the all-Big East first team. Senior Center Kia Vaughn is fourth on Rutgers’ all-time blocks list, and has also lead the team in rebounds for three straight years. Zurich, another senior, switched to the four-spot two years ago but will return to the small forward position this year, which the school says is her “natural position.”

Other key returnees are junior guard Brittany Ray, who hit 31 3-point shots last year, and Myia McCurdy, who tore her ACL in the Notre Dame game Feb. 29, ending her season.

As for the five freshmen, their resumes already read long.

Nikki Speed of Pasadena, CA and Brooklyn Pope of Fort Worth, TX were co-MVPs of last year’s McDonald’s All-American team. Jasmine Dixon of Long Beach, CA was also an All-American, was Gatorade’s player of the year for her state, and was named to USA Today’s all-USA first team. Mississippi’s April Sykes was her state’s Gatorade player of the year, was on Parade Magazine’s All-America first team with Dixon, and was on USA Today’s second team. Chelsey Lee of Miami, FL was an All-American.

Three of the freshmen were also ranked in the top 10 nationwide by Sykes was second; Dixon seventh and Pope, ninth.

Kinda puts a whole new spin on the word “reload,” doesn’t it?

Dixon is the only freshmen I’ve seen play. She and her Long Beach Poly team went up against the team I was coaching with last year several times. Dixon is the truth – a complete player. She’s a nice kid, too, and really goes after opportunities.

Rebecca said Dixon was looking good last Sunday, and I’m not surprised. The only thing that would surprise me is if she didn’t end up in the first round of the WNBA draft in 2012. I have no doubt that the other newcomers will stack up the same way.

Like their friendly orange rivals to the south, Rutgers will be rebuilding/reloading this year. Stringer will have her hands full, but no doubt, she will shape a brilliant team. After reading her autobiography “Standing Tall” this summer, I don’t think there’s anything she can’t handle.

The Scarlet Knights were ranked fifth on Lindy’s pre-season poll and eleventh on Athlon’s. They play their first game – an exhibition against Operation Athlete – at home Nov. 4.