Largely intact ahead of their non-conference finale at Maryland on Saturday, Seton Hall has an opportunity to put a definitive stamp of approval on a fairly tough schedule.
Rewinding to a month ago after Seton Hall (8-3) lost to Saint Louis on their home floor to start their season 1-2 following a beat-down at Nebraska, at least a few Pirates fans were questioning whether their team could finish better than .500 heading into Big East play.
They didn’t take care of business how we thought they would — trade wins against Kentucky and Miami for Saint Louis and Louisville, perhaps — but here we are talking about how a potential win at top-25 hopeful Maryland (9-2) would look come Selection Sunday.
Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard shot down any talk of March’s holy day post-Sacred Heart, but did reveal his hand about where his head was at pre-season.
“9-3 would be one game off where I thought we would be. I won’t tell you which way,” said Willard with a smirk.
“I think we’ve emerged from the non-conference, no matter what happens on Saturday, in pretty good shape. From a standpoint we’re battle-tested, we’ve played every type of style of basketball, we’ve played big teams, small teams. I think we’re very well-prepared for Big East play and that’s what I wanted for this team.”
The road trip to Maryland, who are comparable to Nebraska in terms of strength, is the first leg of a home-and-home series that returns to Newark next year.
“I saw Mark (Turgeon) in the airport in July during one of the last (AAU) recruiting periods and he was looking for a good home game. I was actually looking to start a series on the road but I didn’t want to travel, I wanted some place kind of close and it’s kind of hard if you’re not traveling, there’s not that many teams (willing),” explained Willard.
“I needed to start a high-major series and we just started talking about it and it made a lot of sense for him, it’s a good home game for him, and conversely it’s a great home game for us next year and it’s another true road test and I thought we needed to get tested on the road again.”
While Seton Hall has played their fair share of games on neutral courts (four), a young team crashed and burned at Nebraska in a game Willard said he “never would have scheduled”, implying it was a tough draw from the Gavitt Games scheduling committee.
Saturday is a chance at redemption in their second true road test before starting up Big East play.
Maryland have only lost close games to Virginia and at Purdue but have also only won two top-100 KenPom games: Penn State at home and Loyola-Chicago on a neutral court.
The Terrapins have the sixth-best offensive rebounding rate in the nation, the 27th-best rate on the defensive boards, rank 31st in two-point percentage, and sit 61st in percentage of points from within the arc — all of which point toward a strong front court.
For a team which has only had a positive rebounding margin in one game (New Hampshire) since beating Miami, doing better on the glass is clearly a focal point, especially with big man Sandro Mamukelashvili’s new-found stroke from the perimeter.
“Handling their front line is going to be critical … If we start defensive rebounding at a– we’re never going to be a great defensive rebounding team. Part of it’s my fault. I hate box-out drills, it’s a great way to get a guy hurt. I hated it as a player and if I didn’t like it as a player I don’t do it as a coach,” said a self-reflective Willard, who added he thinks he has the personnel to get the job done.
“If we become a good box-out team, a good defensive rebounding team, then I think our defense can get much better because right now we’re making teams work, they’re taking bad shots late in the shot clock but we’re not rewarding ourselves. If we can get to that next level then I think our defense can be pretty darn good.”
The sentiment toward a more focused effort on the glass was also touched upon just minutes prior by several of his players, even a point guard.
“I feel like we should work on our rebounding because they (Sacred Heart) got a lot of offensive boards and Coach is not happy about it,” said forward Sandro Mamukelashvili.
“I feel like if we work on our boxing out everything will just flow and everything will come (together).”
“It’s a big opportunity for us, if we get the win it’s a big opportunity,” said Anthony Nelson. “We can win, we just have to rebound — that’s the thing we’ve been lacking. I feel like if we rebound, we’ll be good.”
Aside from turning the tide on the boards, ball security against KenPom’s 31st-best defense in a hostile environment after coughing up the rock early on against Nebraska is another key to pulling off the upset.
“I’ve been so impressed with how Turge has got them locked in defensively for technically a pretty young group,” said Willard.
“I think they’re really good defensively. We’re going to have to play offensively with good tempo, we’re going to have to take care of the basketball and get good shots because they’re locked in defensively right now.”
Impressively, Seton Hall has turned the ball over just 23 times in their last two games after doing so 16 times against Kentucky.
While workhorse Myles Powell (22.7 ppg) largely got the night off against Sacred Heart, he will be required to carry a heavy load in College Park but will need his support cast of Sandro, McKnight & company to space the floor and prevent Maryland from guarding Powell too heavily like other teams such as Saint Louis have done.
Becoming less top-heavy on a more regular basis would be a tangible sign of growth from this team.
“Maryland is one of the better teams that we know about. We just have to play the basketball we’ve been playing the last couple games, we’ve been playing really well,” said Quincy McKnight.
“We have to be aggressive on defense and we have to score, we already know Myles is going to do what Myles does. Everyone else has to contribute to the game (too).”
If all the pieces fall into place and Seton Hall gives itself a one or two possession chance down the stretch like they did against Kentucky, anything can happen.
A true road win coupled with two top-50 neutral court wins against the Wildcats and Miami would certainly raise a few eyebrows heading into Big East play as well as in March.
“Our non-conference schedule is really good thanks to Coach and the AD,” said Mamukelashvili.
“I feel like we’re ready but we have three hard practices (ahead) and if we’re going to practice good then we’re going to go there with confidence.
“Maryland is one of the greatest teams so we want to go there and prove everybody wrong that we’re a really good team.”