The 69th meeting between Rutgers and Seton Hall is finally here and it will be played in front of a sellout crowd at the RAC on Saturday afternoon. While Steve Pikiell has Rutgers on the rise, Kevin Willard has the Scarlet Knights’ neighbor up north firing on all cylinders. The Pirates head to Piscataway with a 9-1 record and are ranked #15th in the country. With a veteran and balanced core, Seton Hall already owns five top 100 wins this season and this team has a chance to make its deepest postseason run during March Madness in many years. They present a major challenge for Rutgers, who enter the latest installment of this rivalry having lost the past four meetings between the New Jersey programs.
I was fortunate to speak with Chris McManus, longtime Seton Hall fan and founder of SHUHoops. I highly recommend his site, a go to source for Seton Hall basketball. Chris gave great insight on expectations for this team, reviewed the senior campaigns of leaders Khadeen Carrington and Angel Delgado, as well as some notable moments that have stuck out to him regarding this rivalry. Let’s tip it off here.
After suffering a 1 point loss to a good Rhode Island team, the Hall have looked impressive with wins over Vandy, Texas Tech, Louisville, and VCU. How mentally tough and focused is this team to have the program's best season in many years?
CM: Kevin Willard was very candid about the team’s maturity post-VCU, a blowout win which was the icing on top of the URI bounceback. He revealed how some of his past teams -- including a younger version of this group -- seemed to trend downward after getting a ranking then falling out. Not so much this time around.
What were your expectations for Seton Hall entering this season and have they lived up to them so far? Have your expectations changed at all after its strong start?
CM: I predicted a two-loss non-conference team that battles with Xavier and Villanova for the regular season Big East crown and is a serious Sweet 16 threat. So far, they are exceeding my non-league expectations and have gelled together quickly after some shaky stretches of play over their opening few games. I’d say expectations have been bumped up a rung or two during this five-game win streak.
Seniors Khadeen Carrington and Angel Delgado have seen their individual stats dip some this season. Can that be attributed to having more help around them this year, or is there any concern as to why their numbers are down?
CM: Good question, as this has been asked several times by more national writers who have attended Seton Hall games this year. Willard maintains that Delgado is playing the best he ever has and that his numbers aren’t down, while Carrington has been converted to point guard this season, so his scoring/shooting have taken understandable dips; he is coming around. As a whole, the answer is that Seton Hall has become very balanced with 4+ guys registering 3+ assists on many nights and all starters reaching double figures on a few occasions.
Looking at advanced stats, Seton Hall is extremely balanced and has very few issues as a team. What areas are the biggest keys to success for them?
CM: Perfect transition from my last answer. As I said, they are balanced, but the biggest keys are team ball movement on offense due not having a natural point guard (Willard credits hockey assists) and creating offense/tempo from their defense. Points off turnovers and assist:FGM ratios are what I’ve been primarily keeping my eye on this year.
What are the biggest weaknesses for Seton Hall and what are the keys to beating them?
CM: I don’t know how you quantify it, but when this team gets knocked out of their rhythm a bit (consecutive empty possessions, consecutive bad defensive possessions), they seem to fall apart more than others. It’s an odd thing to say about a top-15 team, but they seem funk-prone, which is a key reason they’ve been so good of late: they have avoided rough stretches of play.
What do you consider your favorite win and toughest loss in the Rutgers - Seton Hall rivalry over the years?
CM: How can I choose just one?
Favorite win: Has to be the Hall’s 2004 win at the RAC. The memory is foggy now as I was a brand new fan at that point, but there are parts of the game I could never forget.
Toughest loss: Has to be the 2012 loss in OT that preceded Seton Hall’s NCAA-crippling loss at DePaul; JR Inman’s winning three in 2008 hurt more than it should have; honorable mention: 2011 BET OT loss, just because of how Jeremy Hazell tied it up in regulation.
With Steve Pikiell continuing to move Rutgers in the right direction since taking over the program, do you expect the rivalry to intensify on the court in the annual game, as well as off the court on the recruiting trail?
CM: We’ve been down this local road of expectations before, most notably when Mike Rice, Kevin Willard, and Steve Lavin took charge at the same time. Many Seton Hall fans root for Rutgers’ demise, while many hoops enthusiasts pull for the locals to rise up along with the Hall, as it makes everything more fun; I’m in the latter camp. Pikiell already closed the gap considerably in last season’s game compared to some of the Eddie Jordan blowouts.
Okay, what's your prediction for this game?
CM: 73-64 SH -- closer than it looks.
Thanks again to Chris for providing great insight on Seton Hall basketball. Follow Chris on twitter here and for all the latest coverage on the Pirates’ program, visit SHUHoops.