Rutgers coach Mike Rice won’t criticize foul officials

Graham Watson
The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Officials have not been kind to Mike Rice during his last two postseason appearances, but you'll never hear him publicly gripe about it.

That's because Rice, the first year Rutgers head coach, constantly preaches to his players that they can't control everything and for him to act emotionally about a call that was out of his control would contradict all that he's trying to teach.

But no one would have blamed Rice if he wanted to yell and scream Wednesday evening after a poorly officiated final minute cost his Knights an opportunity to advance in the Big East Tournament.

"You can't control what happens to you all the time, you just can't," Rice said. "Whether it's a bad call, our zone defense, whatever, it's not how you respond."

St. John's defeated Rutgers 65-63 in the second round, but it was a bizarre final minute, which included two lead changes, a couple turnovers, some missed foul calls and a pair of missed free throws, that set up the most controversial final seconds in recent memory. St. John's Justin Brownlee stole a Rutgers inbounds pass, then in celebration and apparently thinking that time had run out, he ran out of bounds, traveled and threw the ball into the stands. None of it was called even though Brownlee's foot crossed the sideline with 1.7 seconds remaining, which would have given Rutgers one final opportunity to win or tie.

"In the Big East, (officials Tim) Higgins, (Jim) Burr, (Earl) Walton are all really good, veteran guys and you have to trust they made the right judgment decision and if they didn't it's part of the game," Rice said. "We could have done stuff like not shooting 35 percent in the first half of the game."

This is the second consecutive postseason that a Rice-led team has been the victim of poor officiating.{YSP:MORE}

During the first round of the NCAA Tournament, while Rice was the head coach at Robert Morris, the officials seemed to favor opponent Villanova down the stretch. Villanova star Scottie Reynolds was 2-of-15 from the field but shot 16 free throws and got away with several offensive fouls. No. 15 Robert Morris shot 26 free throws while No. 2-seeded Villanova shot 40, including a 10-2 margin in the final 4 minutes of regulation; Robert Morris had a 55-48 lead at the beginning of that stretch. Robert Morris, which led most of the game, ended up losing 73-70 in overtime.

It was during that game that Rice quickly learned that overreacting to calls didn't equate respect.

"I probably (could have) acted with more poise and less emotional, (then the officials) probably would have come over to me," Rice said after the Villanova game in response to a potential jump ball that was called a foul. "But they don't come over to people who are emotionally challenged at that point. And I know it."

Rice's attitude toward officiating might seem blasé, but it's something he learned from his dad, Mike Sr., who was a coach and has been the Portland Trail Blazers television analyst for the past 21 years. Rice said it's also about knowing just how far you can push as new coach in a new league.

"I like my job," Rice said. "I'm a first-year coach. I'm certainly not going to question some of the best referees in the country, their judgment or their decisions. So you just be humble and understand where you are, your place in the Big East. I'm sure some of the more veteran coaches in Big East would have made maybe a bigger stink, but that's not the way I feel on that right now."

But Big East associate commissioner for men's basketball Daniel Gavitt and coordinator of basketball officiating Arthur Hyland both paid their respects to the coach after the game was over.

"They felt just as upset about it for our players," Rice said. "Their insides were turned because they represent the referees, the referees represent them and they want to make sure that everybody has a fair advantage. Again, it's hard to apologize, but those guys came and said, 'Look, here's what mistakes were made. We can't take is back, but we feel bad about it.'"

While Rice said he's encouraging his team to look forward and think about the progress that was made in his first season, it's still hard not to ask, what if?

"I would have loved to have the 1.7 seconds back, I'm not going to lie, but (officials) make mistakes," Rice said. "They make mistakes and you've just got to move forward. I've gotten calls from all three referees. I've had them numerous times and they're really good referees and they're really good people. It's just one of those things where I wish for my seniors, who might not even play in the pros or go overseas, guys who are just going to get jobs, I wish that didn't have to be their lasting memory of their college career. But, like I said, it is what it is and you move forward."

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