Coming into the season, Wichita State (5-4) was penciled in as the most talented non-conference school to play on the road at Seton Hall (8-2) since the Louis Orr days. While the Shockers’ ranking and record took a hit due to losing three games without All-American point guard Fred VanVleet, Gregg Marshall’s team is still every bit as lethal and they still present a head-turning resume win for the Hall.
Sitting at 8-2 with what is considered a mediocre NCAA tournament resume, Seton Hall is now on the tail-end of a full work week of preparation for Wichita State, a team that began the season ranked 10th after making it to the Sweet 16 last March.
With this game set to be nationally televised this Saturday on FOX, plenty of eyeballs including a ton of neutral college hoops fans and higher-ups in the college basketball world will be fixated on what goes down during a noon tip in Newark.
Understandably, the Hall’s expectations vary.
Seton Hall is probably playing their best ball of the season thus far now that Angel Delgado is in sync and the team isn’t collectively turning the rock over like crazy.
That said, judging a team after playing cupcakes like Saint Peter’s, Troy and Rutgers isn’t the smartest thing to do. Plus, this is a Pirate program that has known to come up short in the few big, pivotal games its played during the Kevin Willard era, see: @DePaul (2014-15), DePaul & Rutgers (2011-12).
“You can’t look at their losses — without VanVleet, they’re just not the same basketball team,” said Willard after his team dismantled Saint Peter’s 72-46 last Sunday. “Him and [Ron] Baker compliment each other so well, when he wasn’t in there it was much more difficult for Baker to play his game. [They’re] Two of the best tandem guards in the country, maybe one of the best defensive teams in the country when VanVleet is out there. The ball pressure, the way he plays pick and rolls.”
VanVleet, who is averaging 13.6 ppg and 5.2 apg in the four games he has played, picked up a series of injuries just prior to his team’s unsuccessful excursion to the Orlando Classic where they lost to USC, Alabama and Iowa. Ron Baker is averaging 15.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 3.3 apg as the Robin to his Batman.
If you’re tuned into local high school hoops or follow Seton Hall recruiting, you’ll know the name Markis McDuffie. The freshman stretch-four from St. Anthony (N.J.) has stepped up big of late including 14 against USC and Alabama and 13 against Utah. McDuffie will likely go up against fellow local products like Ish Sanogo (Newark East Side) and Desi Rodriguez (Abraham Lincoln).
“McDuffie is playing well for them, the fact that he has really made shots for them the last two games, I think it has opened up things for Baker and VanVleet,” said Willard of the talented freshman he once recruited.
“We’re going to have our hands full, we’re going to have to handle their pressure in the half court and we’re going to have to do a very good job on VanVleet. I know they said last night [during the Utah game] he’s only 80-percent but he looked pretty darn good.”
Ranked 24th in defensive efficiency and 340th in tempo, Wichita State plays a methodical, mistake-free and defensively-sound game as seen in their 77-68 win over Seton Hall in Kansas last year; the game was not as close as the score indicates. The Shockers have held opponents to 53 points and under since VanVleet’s return.
For Seton Hall’s players, this clash has been marked on their iPhone calendars for quite some time, first hinted at by a comment from Derrick Gordon – who didn’t even play in the game last year – following the Hall’s win over Dartmouth last month.
“It’s big, I think we really have to take it as we took Georgia,” said point guard Isaiah Whitehead, who scored 23 points at Charles Koch Arena last December. “They killed us last year so we’re going to watch a lot of film on them. I know that VanVleet is back so they’re a much different team than people think they are. We’re just going to watch a lot of film and hopefully we get that revenge.”
“They’re always ranked. They’re always a tournament team,” observed Khadeen Carrington with the acumen of any hoops fan in tune with the incredible success of Wichita State over the last five-plus seasons. “Getting a win, that’ll be big for the program, that’ll be a big resume win. We’ve got a week to prepare, we’re just going to go hard in practice this week.”
If there is one glaring reason for Seton Hall fans to be hopeful it’s the absence of graduate transfer forward Anton Grady (9 ppg, 6 rpg) after he was injured during a hard-to-watch fall in the Shockers’ loss to Alabama in Orlando. The former Cleveland State forward suffered a spinal concussion and could possibly be out for the year.
Markis McDuffie has stepped up but isn’t a big threat in the post; fellow forwards Rashard Kelly, Shaq Morris and Tom “Bush” Wamukota have chipped in by committee in the absence of Grady.
While Seton Hall fans have every reason to be skeptical and perhaps even Kevin Willard and his staff quietly have their doubts about Saturday’s outcome, there is one Pirate who is suiting up in armor for what could turn out to be a pivotal game in Willard’s regime in South Orange.
“Hell— [stops himself] yeah, absolutely,” said a semi-reserved Angel Delgado about looking forward to Saturday. “They were at home [last year], we got everything against us. They played really good, they made a lot of shots. I’m really coming for them. I’m playing hard, I’m working hard this week and I hope these guys help me because I’m coming with everything.”
Even if Seton Hall throws everything they have at Wichita State, will that be enough to blow the Shockers’ fuse? We’ll know by 3pm on Saturday.