shaheen holloway
Anne-Marie Caruso | NorthJersey.com

As far as college basketball goes, the tri-state area flies under the radar. Everyone knows New York and New Jersey are special when it comes to producing talent, but that hasn’t always resulted in winning college basketball teams here. With that said, there is plenty to be excited about with the current collection of local schools.

Saint Peter’s is coming off one of the all-time great Cinderella runs and some of that momentum is on its way to Seton Hall via Shaheen Holloway. St. John’s is talented enough to make noise in the Big East. Rutgers is looking to lock down a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, something that has never been done in school history. It didn’t take long for UConn to reassert itself as a force in the Big East. And who could forget our favorite mid-major conference — the MAAC?

Even with all the positives surrounding the local schools, there are questions abound. Trying to nail down the “local” schools for the NY/NJ Metro area isn’t an exact science, but for the purposes of this exercise, we are basing it on geography and conference affiliation.

Here’s one question for St. John’s, Seton Hall, UConn, Rutgers, and the MAAC as we approach the 2022-23 season.

(Note: Syracuse might call itself “New York’s College Team” but they play in the ACC. Still doesn’t sit right with us here at ESNY.)


Will St. John’s schedule anyone in non-conference?

This might be more of a criticism than a question. St. John’s needs to beef up its non-conference schedule. They have yet to make the NCAA Tournament in Mike Anderson’s three years at the helm. This issue was particularly glaring last season when the Johnnies only scheduled three games with “Big Six” conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC).

They lost to Kansas at UBS Arena on Long Island, Indiana in Bloomington, and Pittsburgh in MSG. Here’s what I wrote about the Johnnies after that crippling loss to Pitt:

“Scheduling mostly local mid-majors for easy wins in non-conference doesn’t go far in preparing for Big East play or building an NCAA Tournament resumé. The best win of the season? A home win over Monmouth that came down to the final few possessions.”

Ouch.

Scheduling a soft non-conference slate accomplishes two things (neither of which are good):

  • It deprives St. John’s of potential “resumé-building” wins for the NCAA Tournament.
  • It doesn’t prepare the players for the Big East grind.

What’s the point of running through mid-majors like the MAAC, NEC, AEC, and Patriot League? Sure, sprinkling in a few of those games can work because it 1) can give a team confidence and 2) keeps them close to home. But if the Johnnies can’t strike a balance in their non-conference schedule, they will allow history to repeat itself.

Can Shaheen Holloway build off Kevin Willard’s success at Seton Hall? Holloway went from a New Jersey legend to a household name in the blink of an eye. The scrappy Saint Peter’s Peacocks were led by the raspy voice of Holloway, shocking the world all the way to the Elite Eight. It was the perfect storm for Holloway and Saint Peter’s.

Now, it’s time to see if Holloway can bring that same deft NCAA Tournament touch to his alma mater. For as much credit as Kevin Willard deserves for turning Seton Hall into a perennial Tourney team, his Pirates only won a single game across five NCAA Tournaments and 12 seasons.

Holloway isn’t another case of a school bringing in a former player as an artificial means of injecting life into the program. That line of thinking can lead to success as we’ve seen with Juwan Howard at Michigan. The fatal flaw with this master plan is when the coach doesn’t produce, his legendary status can buy him extra time on the job. Chris Mullin at St. John’s and Patrick Ewing at Georgetown are the two obvious Big East examples of this phenomenon.

But again, Holloway may be an all-time great Pirate, but he’s also bringing bonafide experience as a head coach too. Given the current success of Jersey teams like Saint Peter’s, Seton Hall, and Rutgers (more on them in a moment), it’s safe to call this the “Era of Good Feelings” in the Garden State.

Can UConn take the next step? First off, I hate myself for asking this question. “Take the next step” is among the worst of the worst when it comes to sportswriting clichés and more specifically, offseason filler. It’s right up there for me with “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” for the most hackneyed sportswriting tropes. But I digress…

It’s still worth asking the question for this UConn squad. In fact, this is a question for many of the local schools, but UConn feels like the one best positioned to make a deep run into March Madness.

We already know they are going to be a top-tier team in the Big East for years to come. Huskies coach Danny Hurley is making sure of that through sheer force of will. UConn has two NCAA Tournament appearances and a 24-12 record in the Big East since rejoining the conference in 2020-21.

Adama Sanogo is back after a First-team All-Big East selection. He and Andre Jackson are two important returning starters, but the fate of the 2022-23 team will hinge on newcomers. Freshman Donovan Clingan is a 7-foot-1 four-star recruit out of Bristol, CT. The Huskies are going to need him to provide depth in the frontcourt.

Hurley will also rely heavily on 6-foot-5 East Carolina transfer Tristen Newton to help replace R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin in the backcourt. That’s no easy task.

Can Rutgers contend in super-powered Big Ten? Rutgers as a Big Ten school will never feel totally normal, but it’s football’s world, basketball fans are just living in it. Not so long ago, the Scarlet Knights would be a complete afterthought when it comes to basketball. Steve Pikiell and a talented group changed that with back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. The next challenge for Pikiell and company is maintaining this success.

It won’t be easy after the exodus of Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker, the team’s leading scorers last year. The defense should hold up with reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Caleb McConnell leading the way. Cliff Omoruyi and Paul Mulcahy will be key cogs on both ends of the floor.

But defense aside, finding a consistent go-to guy offensively will be the difference between being competitive in the Big Ten and fading into the background. The Big Ten sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2022 and the conference is showing no signs of going away anytime soon. Big schools like Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State, and others simply reload year after year.

The Scarlet Knights are bringing in two three-star froshes (Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfolk) and a Loyola transfer in Cam Spencer (18.9 ppg). Will these additions be enough for Rutgers to keep pace in the Big Ten? On paper, it doesn’t look like it, but Pikiell’s teams always seem to find a way.

And the cherry on top for Rutgers basketball? UCLA and USC are coming to the Big Ten in a few years.

Can one Cinderella run elevate the MAAC?

I’m not the only MAAC writer out there, but I’m certainly one of the few. Outside of a one-off Cinderella run from Saint Peter’s and the larger-than-life persona of Rick Pitino, the MAAC isn’t a well-known entity around the country. But if you are a college hoops fan in the tri-state area, the MAAC should be on your radar.

Iona is the cream of the crop in the MAAC, but it’s going to be an uber-competitive league in 2022-23. Rider came into its own down the stretch last year and they are returning standout guard Dwight Murray Jr. The Siena Saints showed that even when they have a major roster overhaul, they are going to finish somewhere in the top five. Manhattan and Fairfield will be in the mix, and inevitably, someone will surprise like Marist did last season.

That being said, intraconference competitiveness doesn’t mean the MAAC is moving up in the world. Losing Monmouth to the CAA (for football reasons) and adding Mount St. Mary’s is an undeniable step back. Will the infusion of cash that comes with the Peacocks’ Cinderella run be enough to overcome this realignment?

Only time will tell. Another MAAC run in March might be the key to turning this conference into a two-bid league. Maybe that’s just a pipe dream, but if it ever happens, I’ll be the first one to say “I told you so.”

And for good measure, here’s a little pat on the back for myself. Not bad for my preseason MAAC predictions.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.