To the naked eye, the 15-5 Seton Hall Pirates have had a successful season. But losers of three of their past four, The Hall faces an early must-win at DePaul to keep their momentum alive.
15-5 isn’t good enough.
That’s the current record for the Seton Hall Pirates men’s basketball program, and, by all means, it’s respectable. It’s certainly a mark many teams across the country would kill for, and they certainly wouldn’t say no to the non-conference wins over Texas Tech and Louisville. It’s a standing that has caught the attention of bracketologists, who unanimously have The Hall taking an at-large bid.
But the Pirates, who have revised their personal definition of success, are looking for more than mere bracket bids.
Seton Hall has been to the Big Dance for the past two seasons, earning consecutive invites for the first time since the last years of PJ Carlesimo era (1991-94). Unlike their Jersey hoops brethren in Piscataway, the Pirates have capitalized on signature wins, reintroducing themselves to the national scene with a Big East Tournament title in 2016. True success in the national arena, however, has been evasive, as the pair of trips have each featured first-round exits, uninspiring losses that have extended the streak without a tournament win to over a decade, their last being a 2004 win over Arizona in the Round of 64.
This season was supposed to be the year. It brought back rankings, national television appearances, hope. The Pirates capitalized to the tune of a 14-2 start, ranking as high as 13th in the Associated Press poll, their highest since a 7th place posting in December 2000. Rebounding machine Angel Delgado, one rebound away from passing Syracuse stud Derek Coleman for most Big East boards of all time, led the way, alongside scorers Desi Rodriguez, Myles Powell, and Khadeen Carrington.
But after an eight-day layoff, the Pirates have had to stew over their toughest stretch of basketball in a while.
The Pirates have lost three of their last four games, the dark trio coming by a combined 46 point margin. Visits to Marquette and Creighton were never particularly close, but their previous tilt, a 73-64 defeat at the hands of #11 Xavier on January 20.
The Hall disappointed perhaps the loudest crowd Prudential Center ever had for a college basketball game, earning a double-digit lead in the early stages of the game. ESPN capped their win probability at 84.8 percent with 13 minutes to go, the Pirates holding an eight-point lead. A valiant effort, however, went for naught, as the Pirates were unable to stop the Musketeers’ electrifying JP Macura, who led the charge in Xavier’s 73-64 win.
A combination of the bad stretch and inactivity has cast the Pirates out of the rankings, and their chances at a first-round bye at the Big East Tournament (they’re currently 4-3 in Big East play, good for fifth) are in jeopardy. They’ll have a chance to gain some ground on that soon, as they welcome in current seventh placer Marquette on February 7, but that follows up a visit to top-ranked Villanova next Sunday. That pair is preceded by Wednesday’s Newark showdown against Providence.
Pirates head coach Kevin Willard, however, has remained positive and looks forward to the opportunities presented over the next two weeks, starting with today’s late afternoon showdown against DePaul (4:00 PM, CBS Sports Network).
“I love where we are,” Willard bluntly told NJ.com’ Steve Politi. “Every team goes through a rough stretch. You’re going to hit a tough stretch in this conference, especially with how good the players are and how well coached they are. I have total confidence in where we are.”
In a way, the Pirates are a victim of their own success. Mere tournament bids are no longer a peak. A tournament win will be a true testament to how far the Pirates have come.
That’s what makes games like today must-wins. On paper, it’s something the Pirates should run away with. The Blue Demons (9-11, 2-6) have long been the doormats of the Big East, and that trend has continued this season. They are, however, riding a small wave of momentum, capturing a rare conference win on Wednesday against Georgetown. The Pirates can’t afford to take anyone lightly.
Willard’s confidence, however, has extended to his players.
Senior forward Ismael Sanogo has witnessed the Pirates rise to contender, so he’s more than aware of what the team is capable of. He turned to recent history for sources of inspiration.
“It’s not time to hit the panic button,” Sanogo told Politi. “Last year, we were 3-6 (in conference play) with nine games left and went on a winning streak. I’m not worried and I know my teammates aren’t worried.”
Sanogo has a point. Sitting a 3-6, the Pirates won seven of their final nine games, including a 70-64 win over then-#13 Butler on the road. That gave them the momentum to solidify their second consecutive Dance invite, though that became a 77-71 loss to Arkansas in the tournament’s opening round.
Geoff Magliocchetti is is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490