Holiday Preview: Manhattan last test for No. 23 Seton Hall before Big East

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Fresh off the battle of the Arthur Kill against Wagner, No. 23 Seton Hall is preparing for another cross-river showdown as Manhattan awaits at the end of the non-conference tunnel.

Set for a noon tip on Saturday, the Hall (10-2) will be operating on a shortened schedule when compared to a slightly longer gap following the Rutgers game, which Kevin Willard used for resting the team both mentally and physically.

The Jaspers (5-6) are just outside the top-200 in KenPom and have struggled this season, losing four straight to UMKC, Missouri State, Northern Illinois and Fordham; Manhattan will be dealing with the same recovery period having beat Hofstra on Wednesday night.

For Seton Hall, the first meeting between the two schools since Bobby Gonzalez was in charge — of Manhattan — almost didn’t transpire.

“[Steve Masiello] ‘Mas’ called me in late August and he still needed a game. I didn’t want to play him, but I feel like I’m an overly nice guy, so I said I’d play him. That’s how it came about, he needed a game,” said a dry but comical Kevin Willard post-Wagner.

“We didn’t really a need a game. I was stuck, this was going to be our last non-conference [game]. I was going to stay at 12, I wasn’t going to go to 13 this year because of the way the calendar is with the season. But I also thought, we’re going to see some zone, he presses and goes to a zone and plays hard-nosed defense.

“I thought going into the Christmas break, it would be a really good game for us. His teams play hard, physical, they rebound, and they defend and so I thought it’s going to be a good test for us going into Christmas especially since we’re going to take a couple days off after Christmas.”

While Manhattan isn’t as dangerous as they have been historically, the match-up should pose a series of micro-on-court-battles which Willard has openly said were kept in mind when scheduling.

The team has gone up against “slower” teams like Vanderbilt and Rutgers, strong athletic and defensive units like Texas Tech, a VCU press, odd-ball match-ups like much smaller front lines, and now a pair of Pitino-branded programs in Louisville and Manhattan which contain their own unique style(s) of play.

Despite playing without Ish Sanogo, who has been suspended from the team, Seton Hall will be about 20-point favorites to close out their non-conference schedule on a positive note and with a record (11-2) that was largely on-par with pre-season expectations, though many probably expected a flip-flopping of results between the Louisville and Rutgers games.

And last but not least, many fans will have their eyes glued to the bench to see if Willard calls upon Jordan Walker to log his first minutes in over a month, prior to the Big East schedule.

*****

As a special holiday treat, Jaden Daly of Daly Dose of Hoops was kind enough to do a Q&A to preview the game. Despite being a St. John’s alum and former Manhattan play-by-play announcer, Jaden is a regular at Seton Hall games and has declared Saturday’s match-up as his college hoops Super Bowl.

Seton Hall and Manhattan have only met twice since the 80s, with Louis Orr and Bobby Gonzalez splitting a pair of games in ’02-03 and ’05-06; can you give a brief synopsis of how the program has fared in the past few years including a pair of NCAA trips in 2014 and 2015?

“Manhattan has had a rough go of the past two seasons since their second MAAC championship win, mainly because of injuries in each season. In 2015-16, the Jaspers were forced to play a seven or eight-man rotation almost all of the year and could not stay healthy long enough to get back to their championship form. Last year, the loss of Rich Williams to a torn meniscus put them behind the eight-ball before the opening tip. This season’s experience is the most Steve Masiello has had, and it seems to have had a positive effect compared to the past two seasons.”

Head coach Steve Massiello is from the Pitino coaching tree: he walked onto his Kentucky team and was an assistant at Louisville alongside Kevin Willard. What are his teams typically all about, playing style-wise? What should we expect to see on Saturday?

“Remember Seton Hall’s game at Louisville three weeks ago? Manhattan is a mid-major version of the Cardinals: They’re predicated on causing chaos defensively, pressuring you in a combination of full court and matchup zones, trying to force turnovers and; in true Rick Pitino fashion, cause deflections and create paint touches. As a result of their physicality, Manhattan does tend to foul a lot more than most teams, but it’s something that Masiello has taken as a side effect just because of the Jaspers’ style.”

As a follow-up of sorts, this Manhattan group has some odd KenPom stats. Their A:FGM ratio is top-30, they also turn it over at a very high rate, and play at a rather cool tempo. How would you explain those numbers?

“The turnover percentage doesn’t surprise me, because it has come with the territory of playing at such a helter-skelter pace. The fact that they’re only averaging 68 possessions per game, however, does. Masiello has always expressed a desire in speeding the game up, but Manhattan has always fared better trying to grind you out and take you out of your comfort zone defensively, at least in the years I’ve covered them. Their assist rate is a little higher than I expected, which is a product of Aaron Walker emerging as he takes on a greater role in the offense.”

The Jaspers have played 8 of their last 9 games away from home and lost four in a row against some mediocre opponents. What gives this season, and who would you draw a play up for with the game on the line; it seems there is no clear-cut star player on their roster.

“If you look closer at Manhattan’s record, you’ll see three games they should have won that just didn’t break right: The two losses in the Gulf Coast Showcase against Missouri State and Northern Illinois, and the game against Towson in Belfast where they were on the wrong side of a monitor review and gave up a fadeaway on the baseline with 1.5 seconds to go. In a one-bid league like the MAAC, though, it doesn’t really matter if you’re 5-6 like the Jaspers are or 0-11, and Masiello has made it a point to mention that he wants his teams playing their best basketball going into March. If the game is on the line, Rich Williams would be my first choice. He’s a fifth-year senior who should be a first team all-MAAC player by season’s end, and is the heart and soul of everything the program does, especially on the defensive end.”

Lastly, give my readers some insight/fun facts about Manhattan that they probably don’t know.

“Manhattan’s nickname came from Brother Jasper, the school’s first baseball coach and eventual athletic director. He is also the father of the 7th-inning stretch, as he called a timeout before his team came to bat in the bottom of the seventh upon noticing that Manhattan’s fans had grown restless in the stands. Also, Manhattan and Seton Hall are the last two New York-area schools to win an NCAA Tournament game, and they did it on the same day in the same arena; in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 18, 2004. (Manhattan defeated Florida in the first game of the day, while the Pirates advanced over Arizona in the night session)”

Prediction: “Manhattan will try to stay with Seton Hall into the first few minutes of the second half, but they’re going to have their hands full trying to not only stop Angel Delgado, but also limit all of the Pirates’ shooters. Give me Seton Hall, 83-65.”

*****

KenPom says: No. 18 Seton Hall 82, No. 206 Manhattan 62

Series history: 17-10 Manhattan (Jaspers won 9 straight in 60s-70s)

Projected Manhattan starters
PG – Zavier Turner
G – Aaron Walker
G/F – Rich Williams
F – Pauly Paulicap
F – Zane Waterman

Projected Seton Hall starters
PG – Khadeen Carrington
G – Myles Powell
F – Desi Rodriguez
F – Mike Nzei
F – Angel Delgado

TV: Noon, FSN (regionally) / YES Network (local)
Radio: AM970 / SIRIUS 145 / XM 202
Opening line: SH -21.5