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November 1, 2011After just one year playing college basketball, Rutgers sophomore Gilvydas Biruta is all of the sudden one of the team's most veteran players. Having started all but one game last season, Biruta is second only to junior Dane Miller in career starts. Adding to his experience was a summer spent back at home playing for the U20 Lithuanian National team.
"It was great, I got to play with people I've know since I was six or seven," said Biruta. "I didn't see them for two years, so it was interesting to see how much they improved."
Although Biruta is only a few years removed from his native country, the game suddenly seemed different overseas.
"Even the court is different, the three-point line is farther, the paint is wider," Biruta noted. "You cannot play help defense like we do here. In my mind, I still had coach Rice's system. I used to get in trouble for helping too much because the court is wider and my man is open. In Europe they have good shooters, they knock down shots."
When Biruta returned home, he was a bit of a different player from the one his peers once knew.
"They remember me as a guy on the perimeter but they never saw me making moves in the post, being strong and finishing around the basket," he said.
There was another twist to Birtua's newfound ways.
"In Lithuania, nobody goes to the weight room," Biruta said. "We had a couple weight room days with the national team and everybody was looking at me like I was crazy. But that's what we do in college here, we lift hard."
When Biruta finally returned to Piscataway, he found himself alongside quite a few new teammates. Six true freshmen had arrived on campus this summer and added some much-needed depth.
"I think the team is extremely talented with all the new guards," said Biruta. "We have reinforcements for bigs so if I get in foul trouble they can help us out."
More bigger bodies could also enable Biruta to step out and play a little more freely this year.
"I think he's more comfortable with doing some things on the perimeter," said head coach Mike Rice. "We're going to have to have that a little bit. Gilvydas' strength is his motor and as long he learns to breathe every once in a while and read the defense, sometimes he gets a little fast, he's a competitor."
Even though Biruta is a year into his college career and was the team's second-leading scorer last season, he is not taking anything for granted.
"Nobody has a starting position yet so I have to prove myself. I have to prove I'm better than the other guy which is a healthy competition."