Seton Hall claims New Jersey’s title and earns its way ‘back on the map’
Credit to Kevin Willard: He’s as blunt about this as a born-and-bred Jerseyan giving you a piece of his mind.
NEWARK – The Garden State Hardwood Classic carries a ton of meaning for a ton of people: the fans and students who packed the Prudential Center Sunday night, the sports media across the state, the many Seton Hall basketball alumni who attended the game, the players themselves.
There’s one man who doesn’t like it at all. Credit to Kevin Willard, though: He’s as blunt about it as a born-and-bred Jerseyan giving you a piece of his mind.
“I hate this game,” Willard said after Seton Hall handily beat Rutgers, 77-63. “I do. I hate the time of year we play it. It’s different, because when I first started, we played home and home until they left the league, so it was always two games. I like it much better now that it’s one game. It’s a no-win situation.”
It’s not hard to understand it from his perspective. The Pirates have the upper hand in this series all-time, 41-31; historically, they’ve been the better, more successful program. Win, and you’ve done what you’re supposed to do. Lose – like Hall did by 20 points two years ago, the last time the classic was played – and your fans may never let you hear the end of it.
For the purposes of forming a nonconference schedule, a date with Rutgers is an extra burden for Willard as he attempts to strike a balance between challenging opponents like Michigan, Ohio State and Texas, and low-majors his team is assured to beat while he tinkers with strategy and lineup combos.
“Like I told the team, we’re 2-1 in the Big Ten,” Willard cracked. “I know it’s important to the fans. It’s just never been that big (to me). I’m not from New Jersey. I concentrate on my team. When you’re a coach, every game is a big game.”
But players like Bryce Aiken, Jamir Harris, Ron Harper Jr. and Paul Mulcahy do hail from New Jersey. You can also point to adopted Jerseyans like Angel Delgado, the former Seton Hall star who fired fans up through a pregame hype video.
“This is not about only Jersey pride, it’s about Jersey respect. And we run this state,” Delgado said. “My brothers and I put Seton Hall and Jersey college basketball back on the map and we set a path for all future Pirates.”
Delgado spoke the truth. Hall hasn’t taken care of business against Rutgers every single year of the Willard era, but right now, the Pirates’ “path” is back on an upward trajectory few saw coming before the season.
And the current players may not admit it, but as I wrote last week, Rutgers did steal the Pirates’ thunder by taking down No. 1 Purdue on a 40-foot buzzer-beater from Harper the same night Hall beat No. 7 Texas. The bigger state school earned lots of love for breaking its 30-year NCAA Tournament drought last year, while the Pirates rightfully could have sat there and said, “What’s so special about one berth? We’ve been going every year.”
That’s the beauty of any rivalry game. It’s never just about the guys wearing blue wanting to beat the guys wearing red. Programs take on different personalities over time and play distinct roles. Then you sprinkle some history into the mix.
Jared Rhoden held onto the feeling of losing 68-48 at the RAC in 2019 and used it as fuel.
“I had a bad taste in my mouth,” Rhoden said. “I have a picture in my phone that I never forget about – some kid on the bench at Rutgers that was screaming in my face when I fell on the floor. That's something that resonated with me forever. Every time I think of Rutgers, I think of that moment. I knew I was going to come out here and try to be a dog as much as I could.”
Rhoden posted 16 points and nine rebounds, while Randolph native Aiken led all scorers with 22 off the bench (including three big 3-pointers) to earn the Joe Calabrese Most Valuable Player award.
“It’s the first time for me being a part of the Seton Hall versus Rutgers game, so, it was fun,” Aiken said. “It was a fun experience, but like Jared said, it’s another game that we’re going out there and competing and just trying to win. So hats off to Rutgers. We’re just taking it a day at a time, a game at a time, and we’re just trying to improve each and every day.”
That’s certainly what his coach would want to hear.
Thanks as always for reading. Let’s clean the glass and get out of here for the day:
One step forward, one step back for Steve Pikiell’s team, which committed 15 turnovers and looked sloppy for much of the night one game after toppling Purdue. Ironically, the coach more interested in renewing the rivalry game was the one to come out on the losing end. “As you can see, the environment was unbelievable,” Pikiell said. “I think it’s obviously a great game for New Jersey. I don’t care who the coach is. I’ve said this many times, we should always play this game. Thankful Kevin played it. But I wish we played better.”
Geo Baker returned after missing four games (hamstring injury, then the flu). Playing 27 minutes off the bench, he never could establish much rhythm on offense but did wind up with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting. Pikiell said Baker essentially went 20 days without practicing before suiting up for this one. With some more time to work back in, he should be better going forward.
Ike Obiagu didn’t play for Hall after suffering an ankle injury early in the Texas game. A one-week timetable to return was being tossed around, but after seeing him walking very tenderly Sunday with a walking boot on his right foot, I think they’ll be a tad more cautious than that. It could mean that Obiagu is not ready for the Big East opener next Monday against St. John’s, but better to make sure he’s ready for the long haul.
Writing this early Monday morning means I won’t see where Seton Hall is ranked in the latest AP poll. My prediction: No. 14. Teams ranked ahead of the Pirates last week who’ve since lost include Wisconsin, Florida, UConn, Houston, Tennessee and Arkansas. (Wisconsin and Houston lost to fellow ranked teams.) I’m not saying I would personally rank the Pirates higher than all of them this week, nor that the poll should always be a mathematical equation of “lose, you drop; win, you move up.” But realistically, that’s how the poll tends to work. I think Kentucky is very overrated at No. 10, winning seven games against nobodies and going 0-2 against Power Five foes. (And hell, isn’t it time to start talking about Villanova? The Wildcats are 0-3 against the top 10 and mustered 36 points yesterday vs. Baylor. Hall is 2-0 against the top 10, including one true road win. You tell me.)
With all the chatter about Willard being a prime candidate for the open Maryland job, maybe Sunday was the last time he’ll have to put up with this game. He’d just have to go back to seeing Rutgers twice a year in conference, instead.
Rather, perhaps Willard leaves for his alma mater, Pitt, which is currently a dumpster fire. The job isn’t open yet, but it ought to be soon the way the Panthers are playing. Why am I bringing this up? Oh, look at that – Monmouth 56, Pitt 52. The Hawks led 36-19 at the half and had to survive a late Pitt comeback. All the same, a road win against the ACC is a road win against the ACC for a program like Monmouth, whose KenPom rating is now No. 129.