Seton Hall at a familiar crossroads following embarrassment at Villanova

You don’t have to be a historian of Seton Hall basketball to recognize that the program’s downward trend this January looks very, very familiar.

And at this point, it seems like an annual occurrence when Seton Hall (12-8, 3-5) fans are driven into a state of panic as the team’s trajectory nosedives amidst some choppy waters.

Regardless of the month — although January is often guilty — calls for players only meetings, gutless efforts as seen on Sunday in Villanova’s 80-52 thrashing of the Pirates, and questioning of leadership are becoming familiar.

Is it hard to blame Seton Hall fans, who seem more prone to fan volatility than the average, for their cynicism and rush to judgement?

They’ve seen it before.

And the odor that resonated from an uninspired performance that lasted a hair over 20 minutes at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, smells several years old to some.

Let’s relive the trauma (against doctor’s orders), starting with the 2014-15 campaign.

2014-15: In eerie fashion, a young team in the 2014 recruiting class’ first year overachieves early on including a win over St. John’s, before ultimately dropping eight of nine to close out Big East play, starting in February. That losing streak contained truly dark times: an 80-54 loss at the Pavilion highlighted by Sterling Gibbs’ forearm to Ryan Arcidiacono. At least there was none of that on Sunday — I’m not sure Seton Hall’s players cared enough to resort to UFC tactics.

2015-16: Now sophomores, the 2014 class starts 12-2 before losing four of five in mid-January. A 13-6 (3-4) record was the bend/break moment with grad transfer Derrick Gordon infamously rallying the troops to a 9-2 close to conference play before winning the Big East Tournament.

2016-17: With a 12-3 record after the first week of January, Seton Hall loses 5 of 6 including a 30-point loss at Villanova that followed close road losses at Marquette and Providence. Sound familiar? Close, gritty, overtime wins over Georgetown and Providence would ultimately right the ship.

2017-18: Sitting pretty with a 17-5 (6-3) record on the closing night of January, it looked like Seton Hall was bound for a favorable 4- or 5- seed in the NCAA tournament before losing four straight to start February including a 22-point loss at Villanova, bumping them squarely to the bubble.

Is there a pattern here? It seems the answer is yes, but there may be confirmation bias.

Do other Big East schools not named Villanova go through similar slumps in league play on regular basis? Is this just part of the deal?

For one, the Big East is far from a gauntlet this season, so I’m not buying that explanation, as least for this year’s occurrence.

The conference is ranked 5th nationally by KenPom with a gap between the 4th-ranked SEC ever-widening, but not quite as big as the gulf between the Big East and the woeful Pac-12.

Further, only two schools are currently projected soundly inside the NCAA tournament field: Villanova and Marquette.

The astonishing 8 schools currently sitting with 3 wins in conference play speaks more to the league’s mediocrity than parity.

While I’ll leave the determination of how unique the slumpiness is to Seton Hall up to you, there are some higher-level issues which are giving off the darkest smoke right now.

For starters, this season is now exuding many parallels with 2014-15. Young squad. Questionable leadership. Early success.

Early success is perhaps the most painful part of how this year has unfolded.

We thought this team, with many fresh faces compared to last year’s outgoing crop, was turning out to be a bit different.

They had figured out how to win in tough scenarios, situations which took the 2014 class much longer to resolve, if you can even say they definitively cracked that code.

This group exceeded expectations and perhaps played the highest level of basketball they are capable of by the opening days of January.

But with the reserve tanks of optimism already tapped into and running low, it’s easier to see the team’s flaws now that wins against Maryland and Kentucky are fading into the rear view and victories over St. John’s and Miami — the latter of whom are sub-100 in KenPom — have lost their shine.

Lack of a consistent second scorer.

Myles Powell isn’t quite the superhero some have made him out to be and has trouble with the weight of the team on his shoulders (and that’s OK).

The inability to execute when Powell is bogged down by double teams, something Seton Hall has been aware of since Travis Ford and Saint Louis rolled out the box-and-one 2.5 months ago.

Sub-200 rebounding percentages on both the offensive (232nd) and defensive (215th) glass.

Dead last in turnover percentage (20.9%) in Big East play, as highlighted in games like Villanova (18) and of course Providence (22). The worst part? Many of these are preventable mistakes.

A perceived hands-off approach from Kevin Willard when it comes to rallying the troops, which comes with caveats as some coaches across sports subtly apply pressure to public narratives and act differently behind doors.

We also aren’t privy to every detail behind said doors.

Now that all of those grim realities have come to a frothing boil and can be accepted in an odd reversing of events — we expected any shortcoming up front with a late-arriving team, not the opposite — it’s time to sit back and see how the team responds.

The ball is in their court, pun very much intended.

Post-Villanova, Willard said the team will need to “decide whether they’re going to keep fighting, or are they going to show up and keep getting smacked around?”

Does this team wilt and crumble to the earth like the 2014-15 team? That group seemed to have an affliction for getting smacked around, sadistic almost.

Or do they dig to even new depths and pull off as their final act, their prestige, and prove us all wrong again, like they did in November and December?

That is perhaps the lonesome pole that Seton Hall fans can hang their hat on: this team is capable of it, it’s not some pipe dream.

And that’s also the most agonizing part of all this.

This team is capable of it.

Starting late on Wednesday night against Providence, we’ll begin to know the answer to if they will be capable of it again this year and ride their inner belief out of this mid-winter trough.

The Friars, who have won three of four after starting league play 0-3, are either going to walk into a buzz saw at Prudential Center, or they’ll be like a hot knife through butter as Seton Hall’s season continues to melt away.