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Wednesday / February 22.

Rutgers, St. John’s Facing Off at Critical Time for Both

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The Big East basketball season has just begun, but make no mistake, this is a critical time for both Rutgers and St. John’s.

Both teams were picked to finish in the lower half of the conference standings — and are ranked No. 10 and 11, respectively, in the Power Rankings.

But both need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with new league affiliations looming ahead.

Rutgers is moving to the Big Ten, likely in 2014, and needs to demonstrate before then that it is more than a Big East bottom-feeder. In short order, the Scarlet Knights will have to compete with the Indianas, the Ohio States, the Michigans and the Michigan States on a nightly basis.

On top of that, head coach Mike Rice is essentially in a probationary period after having been suspended for three games and fined $50,000 for reportedly throwing basketballs at his players’ heads at some point during his three-year tenure.

In his first home game back from the suspension, Rice engineered a critical 67-62 victory over then-No. 24 Pittsburgh at the RAC and thus comes into tonight’s matchup with the Johnnies at Madison Square Garden with some momentum.

“I’m going to win,” Rice told Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi following the Pitt game. “Is it going to be harder? Yes. Did I get in my own way? Yes. But I’m going to win here.”

Getting a win over St. John’s tonight at Madison Square Garden would be a good start.

Including the St. John’s game, Rutgers’ next five games are home to Cincinnati, home to USF, at Notre Dame and home to St. John’s.

If they could go 3-2 during that stretch — assuming losses at Notre Dame and either tonight or at home to Cincinnati — the Knights would be at 4-3 and at least in the conversation in the brutal Big East.

Like Rutgers, St. John’s is also coming off a victory over a Top 25 team, having downed then-No. 14 Cincinnati, 53-52 Saturday.

“It boosts our confidence a lot,” sophomore wing Amir Garrett said Tuesday. “The fact they were a Top-25 team gave us a lot of motivation. It helped us believe that we can beat anybody. It boosted us up and as a whole brought us together.”

Like Rutgers, St. John’s will be moving to a new conference, possibly as soon as 2014 if the Catholic 7 can engineer a withdrawal from the Big East and an attendant television deal in time.

It remains unclear whether the new league will add three or five schools to start, and which schools they will be.

Some would like to see the new league “go big” and attempt to bring in the Gonzagas, Creightons and St. Mary’s in addition to perhaps Butler or Xavier to make it a truly national basketball conference.

“I heard all the rumors,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, whose injury-ravaged outfit hosts No. 3 Louisville tonight, told “I don’t know who they’re going to add but I think it’s going to be a great league and I think it’s going to get back to the roots of college basketball.

“I think TV will have a lot to do with that but I do I think it’s going to be a great league and it’s going to be as competitive a league as any league in the country.”

The new league will be without Syracuse, Louisville, Pitt, Notre Dame and West Virginia, but will still have traditional powers Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova along with the likes of Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence and DePaul.

For the new league to be attractive to fans, sponsors and TV executives, those last four teams need to take a step or two forward.

Now — not two years from now — is the time for them to start.

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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.