Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Mike Rice has never coached a game in Madison Square Garden.
And wouldn’t you know it?
His first encounter there as a head coach will come against North Carolina, the 2009 NCAA champions and one of the most storied programs ever.
“It’s a privilege to coach at the Mecca of college basketball,” Rice said Monday. “And to do it against one of the best college coaches is an honor.”
Rutgers (9-2) takes a six-game winning streak into Tuesday’s tilt with Roy Williams and North Carolina (8-4) at the Garden (9 p.m., ESPN2).
Because of the snowstorm that hit New York City Sunday night, the Tar Heels practiced in Chapel Hill Monday night and planned to fly up Tuesday.
“It’s the next game on our schedule, which is the most important game,” Rice said. “Next it’s Villanova [Jan. 2 in their Big East opener.]
“Yes, it’s a big game, nice game, nationally televised game. We don’t put any other extra emphasis on this game compared to the rest of them. It’s pretty cut and dry.”
Rutgers is coming off a 55-52 victory over St. Peter’s in which freshmen and former St. Benedict’s standouts Mike Poole (14 points) and Gilvydas Biruta (11) played well. Rutgers has held opponents to 65 points or fewer in all nine wins.
One guy who should be fired up to play Rutgers at the Garden is junior guard Dexter Strickland, the former St. Patrick standout from Rahway, N.J.
Strickland has a long connection to the Garden and to Rutgers.
He committed to Carolina during a Nike Super Six game at MSG his senior year at St. Pat’s.
He scored his then-season-high 18 points in last season’s win over Rutgers at Carolina.
And now he’s coming off a new-career-high 19 points in a win over William & Mary.
“I’ve just been putting in the work,” Strickland said after the game. “I know that hard work will pay off and I’m just trying to help my team.”
Still, Strickland, who’s started all 12 games at shooting guard, has taken just 10 3-pointers all season and made five. He was 2 for 2 from beyond the arc against William & Mary.
He’s still making the transition from point guard last season and sources say he’s hesitant to shoot at times.
Surrounded by junior forward Tyler Zeller (15.5 ppg) and forward Harrison Barnes (12.3 ppg), the first freshman ever to be named an Associated Press Preseason All-American, Strickland has plenty of other options.
“The more shots you make the bigger the rim gets,” Strickland said. “If I’m driving all the time and my defender is anticipating the drive, you pull up for the shot. So driving all the time opens up the floor and so far, it’s been good.”
Having beaten BCS opponents Miami of the ACC and Auburn of the SEC, Rice and Rutgers will get their biggest opportunity of the season now against Carolina.
Even though the Heels aren’t ranked, a win by Rutgers would be huge for Rice’s nascent program.
“I’m excited about playing a quality opponent,” Rice said, “and letting our fans hopefully get a chance to see what we are and how we’ve improved.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
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.