NEWARK — Last season, Seton Hall’s home win over Xavier put an official stamp on a team that was NCAA-bound.
This year, the Hall’s hard-fought 71-64 victory over the Musketeers marks a pivot point between what would have been an up-hill, outside chance at a bid and a fate that is now largely controlled by the boys in blue and white.
If Seton Hall wins their next three, there’s very little chance they miss out regardless of what transpires at Madison Square Garden.
If they lose at Butler, the Pirates most likely need one at the Mecca to feel safe.
What appears constant is the inability to lose to either DePaul or Georgetown without throwing really throwing a wrench into things.
But while people like us are mulling over these hypotheticals, Angel Delgado & Co. have their eyes on the prize.
“When you win you’re happy, when you lose you’re sad. And you don’t want to be sad,” joked Delgado post-Xavier in his patented jovial approach with a Dominican accent that matched his DR-centric baseball cap.
While there doesn’t seem to be a primary leader on this team compared to years past, Delgado has been the most prominent leader on the court through consistency and sheer will-power on the low block to the tune of 15.3 ppg, 13.2 rpg, and 20 double-doubles over his last 21 games.
Long gone are the days when he would make a few mistakes and then sulk worryingly on the bench during media-timeouts.
“There’s no more ‘I’m tired, I’m sore’ — it’s over for that,” he said of the team’s current mentality.
“If you’re sore, go to the cold tub, that’s what I tell them. We have to play hard and play like it’s the last game [of the season].”
If Xavier was the last game of the season, Delgado and his guys staved off their own elimination after a tepid first half against a team that had leading scorer Trevon Bluiett return from an ankle injury to play an impactful but inefficient 38 minutes.
“It was a must-win, no matter what,” said an in-form Madison Jones of what was at stake against the Musketeers.
“It was a must-win, we didn’t want to walk out of here with anything besides a ‘W’. We knew it would be big for our season. We knew we had to come out of this home-stand with 2 out of 3 and that’s what we did.”
Although Jones admitted he doesn’t really pay attention to bracketology and bubble talk, the senior graduate transfer naturally can’t escape the post-season situation the Hall is in.
“Every game, every night is important, every single night is important. Every night is an opportunity, so we definitely talking about that [the tournament]. Of course we want to be playing in March and that’s our goal no matter what, that’s our goal from the beginning of the year and I feel we have a good chance.”
Something that was more of a concept a few months or even one month ago, is now taking shape for a team that receives most of its production from juniors and seniors.
“All the talk about bubble, bubble, bubble — that wears on you a little bit. These guys have done a good job, because they’re older, they understand what it’s all about now,” said Kevin Willard, who is now 5-0 against Chris Mack in Newark/New York City venues.
“Last year I don’t think they understood all the talk — seedings, RPI and strength of schedule — they understand that a little bit more. They look at each game as a great opportunity. Creighton was a big RPI win, even a Villanova loss doesn’t hurt you, this is a great RPI win. I think they understand that a little better.”
The opportunities will keep on flowing and Seton Hall’s NCAA chances must be kept afloat by preventing a replica of the 2012 debacle with a win at DePaul on Saturday, which will set up another important clash against Georgetown on Senior Night next Tuesday.
With just one home game remaining and it potentially being just as important as the Xavier game, I asked both Delgado and Jones what they thought of the weak showing from Seton Hall fans on Wednesday night and gave them a chance to relay a message to the fans.
Jones approached the question with defensive prowess and largely deferred, just like his playing style.
“It’s Senior Night man, it’s my last game — just come out,” he told me of what message he’d like to get across to fans.
“I can’t do nothing about the fans coming, I tip my hat off to those that do come we appreciate them no matter what. No matter the game, I feel like they should come support as they can, but like I said I tip my hat off to those that do come and show love.”
As for Delgado, he dealt with my question in a similar fashion to his playing style: directly and with ample force.
“It’s [there’s] fan they’re loyal, it’s [there’s] fans they’re not loyal. There’s fans that are coming because we’re playing that team [Villanova]. I just give credit to the people who came here today. People that didn’t come here, it’s their problem, I don’t care about that. If they don’t come, whatever — it’s whatever,” said a confident but relaxed Delgado.
“The people that came today, I really have to say thank you to them and for their support — I’m going to be playing hard for them, not for everybody. Because it’s not everybody, it’s a couple of people. That’s all I got to say.”
Despite, or perhaps even because of the ups and downs this team has faced, these guys believe in themselves to bounce back time and time again regardless of what fan support has been like, from incredibly pessimistic to overly optimistic.
And a large portion of credit must go to Kevin Willard, who is making his over-used “We’ll bounce back” line after a demoralizing loss sound more like a promise than an empty phrase; the Hall has hit back after each Villanova loss while their consecutive overtime wins over Georgetown and Providence followed a two-game skid.
“Every once in a while you get your ass kicked, and that happened Saturday. Sometimes you get beat up,” said Willard of his team’s 22-point loss to the national champs.
“That’s been my message to this team: How do you get back up?”
Seton Hall now has three more games as part of their post-Villanova bounce-back to position themselves as best as possible heading into Championship week.
A second consecutive NCAA bid for the first time since the early 1990s is what’s at stake.
“Growing up my whole life I wanted to play in the NCAA tournament,” reflected Madison Jones.
“Being almost there and having it right there in our hands and right there for us to take, I can’t really ask for more.”