Seton Hall ready to embrace tough non-conference schedule

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Praise has been directed Seton Hall’s way for putting together a strong non-league schedule which looks ripe for helping the Pirates make a third-consecutive NCAA tournament.

Long gone is Kevin Willard dragging his feet about a tough schedule in his inaugural 2010-11 season, as are the subsequent cupcake-laced slates over the next three seasons. 

Since, Seton Hall has steadily raised the bar beginning when the heralded 2014 recruiting class came aboard, and culminating in this year’s attractive lineup. Projected to be about as tough as Willard’s first season, this year’s schedule was meticulously designed with not only post-season aspirations, but NCAA seeding in mind.

“We went out and scheduled aggressively. We’re playing on the road. We’re playing a top-10 team in Louisville on the road, we’ve scheduled them. We’re playing an in-state rival in Rutgers on the road,” explained Willard at last month’s Big East Media Day. “We’re not just sitting at home playing bye games, we went out and scheduled to help us with our seeding in the NCAA tournament.

“One reason we’ve scheduled the way we scheduled, not that out schedule has been bad in the past, but we’ve been stuck in some tournaments and games that have hurt us. When you play in tournaments where if you lose your first game, you don’t know who you’re playing in the second game or if you win your first game you don’t know who you’re playing — we’ve been hurt with that a lot. That’s why we wanted to play in the Preseason NIT, that way you know who you’re playing.”

Willard is referencing past debacles like playing a poor Quinnipiac team last year after losing to Florida in the opening round of the AdvoCare Invitational. And facing Bradley instead of Virginia following an opening loss to Long Beach State at the Charleston Classic in 2015. The year before that was slightly wackier with Seton Hall winning in the first round of the 2014 Paradise Jam but then facing a pedestrian Gardner-Webb after they upset Clemson; LSU was also routed to the loser’s bracket.

“It sets up our schedule much better, it takes away some things where in some of those tournaments where you don’t know who you’re playing you can play two teams which hurt your non-conference schedule that you didn’t schedule — and it hurts you.”

As such, Seton Hall is locked into two guaranteed home games as part of the Preseason NIT as well as three formidable opponents at the Brooklyn main event — a lot less variables in play.

“It ended up working out great for us the fact that we got FDU and Monmouth, two local teams,” said Willard of the NIT on-campus games. “I would rather have two local teams, it brings a little more excitement to those games.”

FDU and Monmouth join five other local schools — Rutgers, Manhattan, NJIT, Wagner, and Saint Peter’s — on the schedule, answering the call of many fans who have questioned why more programs from the immediate New York-New Jersey area aren’t coming to Newark.

“I wouldn’t mess with King [Rice], are you kidding me?” joked Willard about not scheduling Monmouth in the recent past.

“Actually we tried to play two years ago — scheduling is not easy man. Something that has helped us with scheduling is that Prudential Center has been great. They’ve opened up some dates — we’re finally able to have Senior Day as the last game, which we haven’t been able to have [since 2013].”

To that point, of the eight games that will take place on a Seton Hall home court, five will not take place on weeknights. Of those remaining three which will, Saint Peter’s visits Walsh Gym and Indiana is on a Wednesday night, overall setting up a quite preferable string of home games for fans to attend logistics-wise.

But the away-from-home games are what really add steel to the schedule and inject NCAA implications. Rhode Island. Vanderbilt or Virginia. Texas Tech. at Louisville. at Rutgers. 

Then of course there is the anomaly VCU game, which may not be officially classified as a home game for RPI/Selection Sunday purposes despite taking place at the Rock.

“You’re going to know a lot really quick, that’s for sure. But that’s what you’re going to get. We wanted to challenge ourselves,” declared Willard.

“Getting Indiana in the Big East-Big Ten Challenge is exciting. I knew we were going to get a good team. We feel we have a good team and you’ve got to go out and play good teams … We scheduled our non-conference to play teams like we’re going to see throughout the conference schedule. And what’s unique about this conference is there’s so many different styles.”

Projecting is foggy at this point, but on paper one would think that if Seton Hall wins three of those five games away from home while taking care of business domestically, they will have around five top-75 caliber wins from their non-conference schedule.

That’s usually a minimum cut-off point for NCAA bubble teams based on their entire schedule, let alone non-league play. Can you see the seeding implications now?

“If you look at what the NCAA tournament came out with last year with what they’re looking at [on Selection Sunday], it’s not just RPI anymore. It’s who you’re scheduling, who you’re going to play. Wins and losses don’t matter as much as who you’re playing, so we challenged our guys this year with a very tough non-conference schedule.”