Seton Hall and Rutgers return, hoping their COVID pauses are behind them
Big-time N.J. college hoops were back Wednesday and Thursday, and that much feels like a small victory in this day and age.
Seton Hall lost to a ranked team on the road by five. Rutgers pulled away from one of the lowest-rated teams in all of Division I.
Here’s the real upshot: For a brief stretch Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, big-time New Jersey college hoops were back, not sidelined, not postponed, and that much feels like a small victory in this day and age.
Neither team had played since their showdown at the Prudential Center back on Dec. 12 because of you-know-what. Seton Hall called off a game with Iona at Madison Square Garden, and Rutgers could not find a makeup date with Rider. Those fixtures are gone, lost in a vast ocean of upended sports schedules this month, and few of us will actually remember they were supposed to be played in six or eight months’ time.
What’s far more important than making up a game like Rutgers-Rider is the health and safety of everyone involved, most of all the students. That’s where things are about to get sticky.
The Big East and Big Ten now will reschedule league games postponed due to COVID-19 rather than mark them down as peculiar “forfeits” that don’t affect a team’s overall record. The college hoops world collectively felt relieved at this decision – the teams want to play, after all. But Kevin Willard took issue with exactly how a Pirates game at DePaul was rescheduled.
The Big East placed it on Jan. 13, interrupting a bye week of sorts in their schedule and creating a two-game road trip to Chicago and Milwaukee to face DePaul and Marquette two days apart. Maybe that looks fine on paper. Willard disagrees.
“I don’t think (the league) looked at it the way coaches look at it,” he said on his postgame radio interview. “I think administrators have no idea the way coaches look at things. I look at it as I have eight guys for four games. When can I practice and when can I get those guys rest and when can I get those guys recovery and when can we get better?
“You don’t do that by just chucking games in because, oh, it fits here. And that’s where administrators are stupid – oh look at this, there’s a date that works. That’s great, I’m glad it works for you. It doesn’t work for basketball.”
Steve Pikiell, too, is looking out for his players’ well-being. He revealed that several Rutgers players had to spend Christmas in isolation due to COVID protocol. All season, he and other coaches have been underscoring the difficulty of what students are facing this season.
“I try to talk to every single one of them every day, to keep them upbeat,” Pikiell said. “It’s a tough time. There’s a lot more to this than coaching basketball right now.”
Monmouth coach King Rice brought up the pandemic unprompted when I covered the Hawks’ loss to Hofstra just before Christmas.
“I told them please keep COVID off you because this thing is getting ready to get wacky,” Rice said as his players were set to depart for Christmas break. “We’re not going to play all 20 of these (MAAC) games. Everybody knows that already. The league is trying to come up with contingency plans, and it’s a joke, OK? Everybody across the country, you told us to get vaccinated and we could play, and now you can’t do it.”
But on to basketball, first stopping in Rhode Island, where No. 21 Providence really impressed me in its 70-65 win over Seton Hall on Wednesday. Was it the most balanced offensive attack on earth? No – the Friars can’t expect Noah Horchler to hit five 3-pointers every night – but inside and out, the right pieces are there, and they’re just as experienced (read: “old”) as the Pirates.
Hall was still shaking off the rust when it couldn’t quell Providence’s 15-0 first-half run. In typical Pirate fashion, they played better down the stretch and nearly closed the gap all the way.
Alexis Yetna was the statistical leader, with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Seton Hall had eight players available, missing bigs Tyrese Samuel and Ike Obiagu due to protocols, so Tray Jackson got the start alongside Yetna. Both will be crucial going forward, because Willard said the eight who played Wednesday are likely the same eight who’ll be available for the next two games.
Back down in Piscataway, Rutgers never trailed by more than one point, but Maine hung around for much of the second half before the Scarlet Knights secured an 80-64 win. Maine now ranks No. 351 of 358 over at KenPom.com, but for a Rutgers team coming directly out of quarantine, that’s not of much concern.
Paul Mulcahy surprised us with a 4-for-4 performance from the arc. He also set up Cliff Omoruyi for some easy baskets, including a memorable slam. Pikiell rotated in as many bench players as he could to get them some floor time, while at the same time having all five starters log at least 30 minutes to ensure the win.
Most impressively, though, Rutgers recorded 21 assists on 27 made field goals. That was marked improvement after having just eight assists in the Seton Hall game.
“I was just, again, nervous. We haven’t run plays, we haven’t been together at all,” Pikiell said. “I wanted them to play together, and I thought we really passed the ball – that’s what I was most pleased (with).”
If college basketball fans had one wish for the new year, I’m sure it would be for conference schedules to proceed as planned without a hitch. For that to happen, players and staff must remain healthy, safe from COVID. That’s at the root of the scheduling issues, and if we’re being honest, that’s what we all should be hoping for.
Thanks for reading, as always. No notes section today. I’ll be back Monday before I take one more half-week off from the newsletter while I spend time moving to a new apartment. I’m back to covering games in person Jan. 8 and will return to the twice-weekly format through the remainder of the season and postseason, God willing. Happy new year!