Big East championship on the line as Seton Hall starts final lap

Wendel Cruz/FinishFirstPhotos

Holding a one game lead over Creighton with three remaining, No. 13 Seton Hall has it all to play for over their tough final act of the Big East season.

And while their first regular season title since 1992-93 is a coveted feat, even more so than winning a conference tournament title, N.C.A.A. tournament seeding is also on the line.

Seton Hall currently sits firmly on the three-seed line and looks set on a local trip to Albany, but they can get bumped off of it with a mini slide even though their NET will likely hold due to the strength of their opponents: at Marquette, No.12 Villanova, and at No. 10 Creighton.

“Three monsters? Yeah. There’s no hiding anymore,” gulped Kevin Willard.

“What we have in front of us — obviously at Marquette is going to be Markus’ [Howard] senior night, I’m pretty sure, and then we come here for our senior night against — I think ‘Nova’s as good as any team in the country, and obviously I think at Creighton for their senior night, I don’t think there’s anybody playing better basketball than Creighton in the country right now.

“The way I’m looking at it is three great opportunities to kind of solidify where we’re going to get seeded in the NCAA Tournament, it gives us a chance to win the a Big East championship, and it also gives us a chance to get a great seeding in the Big East tournament, so it’s three great opportunities.”

As Willard hinted at, should the Pirates redouble their resolve with a surging winning streak into New York, a two-seed in the big dance becomes a very real possibility.

But for now, the team is just thinking about their next game, a road trip to Milwaukee for Markus Howard’s senior day. No easy task despite Marquette’s wilting form, a three-game losing streak.

“I can’t even find words for it. I heard that Fox wanted to do a little feature with me and Markus when we get out there,” said Myles Powell of Saturday’s game when asked about the big day for his close friend.

“The emotions that are going to be running through that building, I can only imagine what he’s going to be feeling.

“He’s a great kid. He’s a faith-first kid. You heard of him calling me when I got hurt, praying for me. These four years that we’ve been in school together, we’ve had a great relationship the whole time,” continued Powell, whose bond with an individual rival is well-documented.

“I never found me and Markus talking trash to each other. Other good guys when we get on the court, we’ll talk trash and stuff like that. But Markus is just a guy who– he’s just so nice. It’s kind of hard [to]. I respect him so much as a man, I just hope he does well in the future.”

And while it looks like Howard is going to run away with his second straight Big East Player of the Year award, Powell & Co. have bigger things to worry about than individual accolades.

Powell was firm in his belief that he “doesn’t care” about his stats as long as the team is winning post-St. John’s.

“At this time, at the end of the year, the only thing that matters is winning,” said Powell after another cold showing on the perimeter.

“I could have 37 with a loss tonight and nobody is talking about Seton Hall. I had 18, shooting 1-for-12 or whatever I shot from the three-point line and we win, so everybody is still happy. At this point, the only thing that I’m missing is a championship and when it’s all said and done, I want to be talking about it as a champion.”

Don’t tell the team, but Powell’s Senior Night against Villanova appears to be more weighted than the trip to Marquette.

Head-to-head is the primary Big East tie-breaker, but should Seton Hall win at Omaha and find themselves even with Creighton in the standings, the second tie-breaker is record against next-best opponent (Villanova), which they would have if they sweep the Wildcats for the first time since 1992-93.

Hypotheticals are fun to rearrange in your headspace, but Villanova is very real and the game is already on Powell’s mind.

“Then I turn around and I have my senior night against ‘Nova. My palms are already sweating just thinking about it, just talking about it,” admitted Powell, rubbing his hands together anxiously.

Some Seton Hall sects are equally anxious given Powell’s lengthy shooting slump, but last week’s 180 that included two team wins should renew belief and highlight the upper bounds of how good the collective can be if Powell rediscovers his touch.

“It just shows that we’re battle-tested. We could have gotten complacent, we had ten wins already. We were in first place. We just lost two tough ones,” said Powell of answering the two-game losing streak.

“We could have rolled over and lost and still could have been in the tournament talk. But what we did already wasn’t enough for us. It just shows that we’re battle-tested and have a group of guys that want to win and want to keep making history. We’ve still got a lot left in the tank.”

Perhaps most importantly, Sandro Mamukelashvili is starting to fire on all cylinders a little less than a month after returning from a 12-game absence. Sandro averaged 15.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2 apg and a bucket full of intangibles last week after getting implicitly called out by Willard for his one-rebound showing at Providence.

“Like I said, he had a vacation for seven weeks. For him, it was more of a mental grind, not physical, and I think he’s now in a pretty good mental state where he’s ready to attack and be aggressive every game,” said Willard.

That third weapon alongside Powell’s gravity and the ever-efficient Quincy McKnight gives Seton Hall a press-breaker, an anchor in the paint that can kick it back out with crisp passing, and an inside-out threat, among other things.

“We’re starting to get Sandro back in the feeling. Him moving back to the four and Jared [Rhoden] moving back to the three. It seems like everybody is going little now so Ro’ [Gill] is getting better with closing out on guys shooting threes and five-men that like to put it on the ground,” diagrammed an optimistic Powell.

“These last three games that we have, at Marquette, ‘Nova here, and at Creighton, it’s going to be a good test for us.

“It’ll let us see where we’re at. We’re playing for a championship.”