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Forward thinking

Successful yet turbulent season behind it, Rutgers eyeing a Final Four in Tampa.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 5, 2007


NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.

In the days leading up to her first practice last month, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer was walking in downtown New York with senior guard Katie Adams when they stopped each other.

"She asked, 'Coach, are you excited about this season?' I said, 'Yeah,'" Stringer recalled after a practice last month. "I wasn't too convincing. I said, 'What about you?' And she said, 'Yeah.' I thought, 'Wow, we're in trouble.'"

Seeing the shrugged shoulders after a long offseason, Stringer took the extraordinary step of canceling the Scarlet Knights' first practice. It's a public event for many big programs, but Stringer took "Midnight Madness" and specifically told her players to take a day away from basketball.

"I said, 'Don't come into the gym,'" Stringer said. "'Just sleep. Don't touch a ball.' I slept Thursday and it felt good. That's all I needed."

Rutgers hasn't had much of a break since its wild run as a No.4 seed to its first championship game, where it lost to Tennessee. Nearly everyone is back from that team, but all felt the burden of national headlines stemming from radio host Don Imus' controversial comments, calling players "nappy-headed hos" the morning after the loss. Imus lost his job with CBS, but his comments - rather than the best season in the program's history - are what people associate with Stringer's team.

Imus wasn't the only distraction for her. Before last season, the team agreed to separately allow an author and a documentary crew to chronicle their season. When the Knights opened 2-4, including a 40-point home loss to Duke, both abandoned their projects, Stringer said.

"The writer, just like everybody else, gave up on us," said Stringer, who has 777 career wins in 36 seasons, third most in NCAA history. "She showed up in like March, and I get these Girl Scout cookies and balloons: 'Oh, my God, I can't believe it. Congratulations!' I didn't even know who she was. I hadn't seen her since November."

Same with the documentary crew, which took hours of footage of the team, then left ... until Rutgers won the Big East tournament.

"He did about two months, every day, then we got into the season, we started losing those doggone games, and he said, 'Hey, we're out of here,'" Stringer said. "Next thing I know, 'Hey ... Congratulations! You won the Big East. Oh, my God! Can we get some footage?'"

So as Stringer, who turns 60 in March, walked with Adams in New York, the guard told her coach that the offseason was "just one blur into another." Stringer had her top assistant, Jolette Law, leave for the head-coaching job at Illinois and said she felt the strain of a demanding calendar and the pressure of assembling a huge recruiting class of five players.

"Once you start practice, there's not another day for seven months where we'll have two days off," Stringer said. "July, it's exhausting. Now you don't have time to get six hours sleep. There's no time. ... It's been taxing. We dealt with a lot of things. Many conversations, many questions about this Imus situation. I lost an assistant I had for 12 years, so now I'm recruiting. All that became issues with me."

As mentally straining as the summer was, Rutgers players channeled their frustrations - about losing in the final, about Imus - in the weight room, where they emerged in much better shape. Nearly the entire roster failed Stringer's annual conditioning test in October 2006, but this year, players asked their coach if they could take the test six weeks early, in September.

"This group stunned me. Can we test early?" Stringer said. "I've been waiting for 35 years to see who would challenge me on that. I said, 'Of course.' They're doing things we could have only prayed for last year."

Rutgers has all of last season's talent, with a year, perhaps more, of maturity and experience. Seniors Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson and junior center Kia Vaughn are All-America candidates, and the Knights can be motivated by being picked second behind rival Connecticut in the Big East. The nonconference schedule will toughen them more, with a who's who of Top 10 teams, including dates with Stanford, LSU, Maryland, Duke, California and Tennessee.

Stringer recognizes the stress she has been under and wants to protect her players from the high expectations of having so much back from a national runnerup. She saw Maryland, returning everything from its 2006 champs, miss the Final Four in April.

"I don't know what happened to Maryland. The expectations obviously are high," she said. "Anything less than a national championship is a disappointment. How fair is that?"

Rutgers already has one trip to Tampa booked, for a Feb. 16 game at South Florida. Stringer hopes a long year ends at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"Right now, I'm thinking Tampa, Florida, that's pretty special," Stringer said. "They want to go out with a bang, these three seniors. I cannot allow them to feel the pressure of the year. They need to enjoy the year. I'll try to do everything to prepare them mentally."