When Austin Johnson looks down the list of Princeton-based offenses the Rutgers men’s basketball team has played in the last two years, he sees how close the Scarlet Knights are.
Three losses — to Georgetown, Princeton and Richmond — last season by a combined seven points prove it. Two more in 2010-2011 by a combined 14 points defend it.
“We’re right there,” said Johnson, a senior forward. “We just have to capitalize on a few things and not make the mental mistakes that come back to bite us in the rear at the end of the game.”
The mistakes manifested against Princeton last season at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, where the Knights erased a 17-point deficit only to lose on a last-second shot.
Princeton, the namesake of a patented offense involving constant motion and backdoor cuts, outlasted Rutgers in overtime in 2010, the same season it nearly beat Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Its long possessions have historically given the Knights fits.
“It’s definitely draining,” Johnson said. “It saps the energy out of you. It saps you mentally. You have to remain disciplined.”
It is likely why the Knights’ 11-man rotation through two games will continue tonight at Princeton.
Ten players saw at least 10 minutes on the floor Monday in Rutgers’ 88-62 win against Sacred Heart. Head coach Mike Rice took the job in 2010 on the premise of playing high-energy defense, which would in turn warrant frequent substitutions.
For the first time since then, he has enough depth to do so.
“If guys are coasting, guys are trying to play cool, then we won’t be successful,” Johnson said. “At this level, it takes all five guys on the court to be successful.”
They will all likely be responsible for defending Ian Hummer.
Hummer, a 6-foot-7 senior, scored 21 points, including the game-winning field goal, and added eight rebounds last year against Rutgers (1-1). He added 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting in 2010.
Princeton’s (1-1) offense always relies on steady outside shooting, but Hummer, a point forward, has given it inside-out balance.
“Ever since my freshman year,” Johnson said, “he’s been giving us problems.”
But for the first time since Rice’s hiring, the Knights have enough frontcourt players to match him.
Rice could turn to a frontcourt tandem of Johnson, senior wing Dane Miller and junior forward Wally Judge to give Hummer different looks.
“That’s definitely an asset,” Johnson said. We can give him … all types of different players — people who can beat him up, people who can wait and time his shot up. I feel like we’ll have him thinking a lot because he’s not going to be going up against the same player the whole game.”
But the person with the biggest stake in monitoring Hummer will never take the Jadwin Gymnasium court.
Associate head coach David Cox served three seasons under Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, who spent 13 combined years at Princeton as a player, assistant and head coach.
It is one of the few times Rice defers to an assistant for a game plan.
“Coach Cox is great on weeks like this because he’s been through the Georgetown offense, so he knows everything about it,” said sophomore point guard Myles Mack. “He knows every play. He’s not going to tell us anything to hurt us.”
The Knights hurt themselves last year, turning the ball over 18 times and shooting only 37 percent from the field. They took an NCAA-qualifying Princeton team to an extra five minutes in 2010, but an undermanned roster left with a five-point loss.
Johnson hopes the trend is not recurring.
“We can prepare by remembering how bad it felt after we lost to them last year,” he said. “We don’t forget, definitely in our house. It’s been two years in a row, so it’s time for us to do the right things.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.