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As the rivalry resumes, Steve Pikiell and Kevin Willard continue to push both programs forward

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Rutgers and Seton Hall meet for the 71st time on Saturday

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s game at the RAC will mark the fourth meeting between Rutgers and Seton Hall with Steve Pikiell and Kevin Willard as head coaches of each program. Pikiell is 1-2 against the Pirates at Rutgers, with each team holding serve at home since his arrival in 2016. He’ll look to even the score this weekend.

Willard has been in charge of Seton Hall since the 2010-2011 season when Pat Hobbs hired him while serving as interim AD in South Orange. Willard has been a part of this rivalry for almost a decade and when he started Rutgers was a conference foe. He is 7-6 against RU, having gone just 2-5 in the three years they were in the Big East and Mike Rice roamed the sidelines in Piscataway. The rivalry sputtered during the Eddie Jordan era, as Seton Hall won all three games by an average of 21 points. That changed once Pikiell entered the stage, as the last three meetings were decided by an average of less than 8 points. It’s hard to argue the two school’s have had a better pairing of head coaches during the modern era of this rivalry than now.

Willard and Pikiell have similar approaches in regard to rebuilding and leading their respective programs. They both want hard nose, tough players who are willing to grind things out and play bother ends of the floor. They are both strong leaders who players work hard for. The great Jerry Carino touched on this in a column here. However, as they collide once again in the annual Garden State Hardwood Classic on Saturday, its a good time to reflect on the very different situations they each inherited.

While Willard has turned Seton Hall into a perennial winner and NCAA Tournament team, he didn’t establish that high level of play until his sixth season. He inherited a program that went 66-59 with three consecutive winning seasons under former head coach Bobby Gonzalez. While the program needed a coach to get them over the hump, it’s not like Seton Hall was devoid of talent or a Big East bottom feeder. Willard was a major step up from the hot head that Gonzo was in regard to running the program with class, but it took him a long time to outperform him on the court. Willard went 82-81 his first five seasons which included two losing campaigns. It wasn’t until Willard landed the 16th best recruiting class in the country in 2014 that perception and reality started to change.

That class was led by prized 5-star recruit Isaiah Whitehead and included 4-star center Angel Delgado, as well as four 3-star prospects in Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Michael Nzei, and Ismael Sanogo. Amazingly, Willard got major contributions from all six players. While Whitehead only stayed for two seasons, the group’s sophomore campaign ended a ten year NCAA Tournament drought in 2016 and the Hall have been regular attendee’s every year since.

Whitehead committed that September and with Delgado and Carrington already in the fold, Willard was able to balance out the class with Rodriguez, Nzei, and Sanogo, all whom played major roles as their careers unfolded.

Steve Pikiell inherited a program that was the worst high major in Division I. Rutgers had a KenPom ranking of 279th out of 351 Division I teams in 2016. The Scarlet Knights rank 69th ahead of Saturday’s matchup. Progress has been made in Pikiell’s tenure, but going from a team that wins 14-15 games to 20 or more is the hardest part of any program’s build.

Pikiell is hoping that his own 2020 recruiting class can have a similar impact as Seton Hall’s 2014 class. While Dean Reiber was already rated a 3-star prospect when he committed, Oskar Palmquist, and Mawot Mag were recently upgraded to a 3-star rating after they signed with Rutgers. While only Reiber held another high major offer (Penn State) of the three recruits, that doesn’t mean they won’t develop into key contributors down the road. Of the Hall’s trio that rounded out that famed 2014 class, Nzei was the only one between himself, Rodriguez, and Sanogo to hold another high major offer, which was from Iowa. The current class is ranked 57th nationally and 11th in the Big Ten per 247 Sports, but a lot can change from now until the end of this recruiting cycle.

What is key for Pikiell is landing an impact player in this 2020 recruiting cycle and Rutgers has made it clear their top priority is local 4-star big man Cliff Omoruyi. The top 50 recruit included Rutgers in his final eight schools and considered a top contender to land him along with Arizona State, but he doesn’t plan to make a decision until the Spring. A winning season for the first time in 14 years and step up the Big Ten standings would be huge for Rutgers to show Omoruyi that he could be the final piece towards breaking that almost three decade long NCAA Tournament drought.

The 2018 class that included 4-star Montez Mathis, as well as 3-star recruits Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell, along with 2017 class big men Myles Johnson and Mamadou Doucoure, both 3-star recruits, will all be juniors next season. Surrounding them with useful pieces in the freshman class is vital for the program taking that next step and ultimately becoming as successful as Seton Hall has. Adding a player with Omoruyi’s potential to a nucleus that is, as Pikiell said on a conference call on Thursday, “still figuring it out”, could change the program’s trajectory in an instant.

Beating Seton Hall on Saturday would certainly make a statement in recruiting circles and show Omoruyi that Rutgers is on an upward trajectory.

Pikiell said of the game, “Since I’ve been here, they’ve been really exciting games, all of them. It’s always close and its a great rivalry for New Jersey. I think its two programs that are on the rise. Seton Hall, obviously, when you are ranked for the last several years with a player of the year candidate and a really great coach in the great state of New Jersey, the RAC will be rocking. People have been excited for a long time and we’ve developed a nice homecourt advantage here, too.”

Even with the success of Seton Hall being greater than that of Rutgers for several seasons now, this game just means more for them too. Willard told Adam Zagoria of NJ Advance Media in this article that “as we went through the schedule, this was always going to be a big week just because the rivalry game with Rutgers is always one of our toughest games of the year, or one of the most intense games of the year.”

While one program is chasing the other, both teams have postseason aspirations this season. However, the importance of Saturday’s game at the RAC is huge for both programs in the short term and long term, both on the court and on the recruiting trail. As crazy as the environment will be, it should only get better and better each season as each program continues to improve with capable coaches on the sideline.

For my game preview between Rutgers and Seton Hall, click here.