When Villanova last visited the Rutgers Athletic Center in January 2010, the Garden State trio of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Dominic Cheek combined for 48 points in a 94-68 rout of the Scarlet Knights.
Fisher (St. Patrick), Stokes (St. Benedict’s) and Cheek (St. Anthony) all opted to leave powerhouse New Jersey prep programs to go down the New Jersey Turnpike and play for Jay Wright.
With Villanova returning to the RAC Wednesday night for the first time in the Mike Rice Era (8 p.m., SNY), the new coach is determined to avoid losing so much in-state talent to out-of-state rivals.
“Obviously, there’s so much talent in those three programs, as well as throughout the state, we want to get the best players to stay at home,” Rice said Tuesday.
“Villanova does a great job recruiting New Jersey and the metropolitan area, so does Pitt and the rest of the Big East. So as many as we can get to stay home, the better it would be for the state University.”
Villanova’s 2011 recruiting class includes New Jersey point guard Tyrone Johnson, the No. 13 point guard in the class according to Rivals, and Long Island shooting guard Achraf Yacoubou, the No. 38 shooting guard in the class.
The Wildcats are also one of many schools involved with 6-foot-8 St. Anthony junior Kyle Anderson, the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2012.
Yet Rice achieved national recognition for scoring a Top 15 recruiting class for 2011 that includes several local products, including St. Anthony senior point guard Myles Mack, former Rice big man Kadeem Jack and Boys & Girls shooting guard Mike Taylor, who is currently suspended for failing a class.
“Maybe the biggest surprise of the class is the high level of metropolitan-area kids,” Rice said. “Rutgers has always gotten metropolitan-area kids, but I think these are some of the best players in the metropolitan area this year. They are going to become my building blocks, my foundation.”
As the head coach at Robert Morris, Rice pushed Villanova to the brink in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, nearly becoming just the sixth No. 15 seed to upset a No. 2, before falling, 73-70, in overtime.
Though he was criticized in some quarters for his animated behavior in that game — Rice felt the “last 15 calls” went against his club — the coach’s enthusiasm, and local connections, were critical reasons why Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti hired him to replace the fired Fred Hill.
“I knew that early on his connections and his relationships and his energy, it’s hard for kids to say no to him,” Pernetti said. “Even for me, as I recruited him and interviewed him and talked to him, it was hard for me to think about not having him as the coach. So I’m not surprised and I’m excited about what I think he’s going to bring because people are re-energized about our basketball program.”
Still, the Fishers, Stokes’ and Cheeks of the world won’t suddenly start staying home until Rutgers can win. And win consistenly.
Nobody knows that better than Rice.
“It takes them buying into what you’re building, what your selling, what you’re doing at Rutgers,” he said. “Bringing them to practice and showing them the development of what we’re doing with our team and the style we play.
“And it takes success. In the end, it’s all about success. Can you make them successful? Can you develop them as student-athletes and can you finally get to the tournament?”
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.