There will be no rest for the weary when Seton Hall travels to Omaha to take on undefeated and tenth-ranked Creighton on Wednesday night in their Big East opener.
Fresh off a brief holiday rest and a win over Rutgers that put some icing on a 10-2 non-conference schedule, Seton Hall will be faced with one of their toughest tests of the entire season at a packed CenturyLink Arena.
“We played pretty well in the non-conference considering the amount of travel we’ve had to do,” said Kevin Willard on Tuesday’s Big East conference call. “I was proud of the way we progressed, especially defensively considering the fact that we didn’t have a whole lot of practice time at home.”
A team that has gained more than they lost this off-season, Creighton has turned heads nationally after bowing out to Seton Hall in the first round of last year’s Big East Tournament and a three-game NIT run that ended in a loss to BYU.
“The game at Creighton is a huge test,” proclaimed Willard. “They’re by far the most talented team we’ve seen top to bottom, inside and out. Their experience, they’ve added some tremendous players and the guy a lot of people aren’t talking about, Khyri Thomas, is probably the most improved player in the league.”
In addition to Thomas, who has doubled his scoring average of 6.2 ppg from a year ago, two-guard Marcus Foster (19.1 ppg), another former teammate of Jevon Thomas’, leads the Jays in scoring and has been a huge addition along with impact freshman center Justin Patton (12.3 ppg, 6 rpg).
Greg McDermott’s team won the Paradise Jam and has taken care of five top-100 KenPom opponents by an average margin of 13 points per win including a 79-67 win over Wisconsin at home.
An annually proficient offense has been torching defenses yet again this year to the tune of 89.8 ppg (8th), ninth in offensive efficiency, first in 3PT%, eighth in 2PT% and 19 assists per game, leaving Kevin Willard with a ton of game planning to do for an opponent with five guys who can knock down three-balls.
“I didn’t have a very Merry Christmas,” joked Willard about game-planning for a dynamic Creighton.
“Greg [McDermott] and I are good friends, I texted him on Christmas and I told him ‘the best way for someone to ruin Christmas is to watch your team and try to prepare for your team.’
“We went back and watched how we played them last year but you can’t go back and play a team the same way you played them last year because they didn’t have Marcus Foster. Thomas and Foster on the wings — they’re so much more athletic, they’re so much more explosive offensively on the wings. They don’t throw the ball inside as much, but [point guard] Maurice Watson gets paint touches anytime he wants.
“I went back and looked at both times we beat them and realized that was nice, but there’s no way we can play them the same way we played them last year, they’re so much better offensive and defensive you need to come up with a new game plan.”
While the task is objectively difficult, one would think Willard should be given the benefit of the doubt after last year’s team held the Jays to 73 and 65 points after getting torched for 82 in Newark, a home loss which infamously led to a players-only meeting called by Derrick Gordon; the Hall has also won their last two games at CenturyLink.
Despite some recent success against the Jays, Willard isn’t as optimistic.
“Every year teams change, just because you won against a team the year before, doesn’t mean you’ll win this year. They didn’t have Marcus Foster last year scoring 20 points at will, they’re much better defensively with Thomas and Patton out there.
“Each year you have to adjust, your team has to adjust, we’ve been in some pretty good environments this year but this will be the biggest test that we’ve had. You always go back on some experiences, but each year brings new tests. This Creighton team is much different from the Creighton team we faced last year.”
Regardless of the outcome Wednesday night against a shoe-in top-25 opponent, Seton Hall should be wary to put too many eggs in this emotional basket with games against Marquette (2x), DePaul and Providence looming on the horizon.
Willard has been public about how he breaks up the conference schedule into portions and a 3-2 showing to start league play heading into an away game at Villanova is probably a passing grade.
KenPom says: No. 21 Creighton 83, No. 49 Seton Hall 75 (22%)
Series history (Seton Hall 5-3)
Mar. 10, 2016, Seton Hall 81, Creighton 73, New York City, N.Y.
Jan. 30, 2016, Seton Hall 75, Creighton 65, Omaha, Nebraska
Jan. 9, 2016, Creighton 82, Seton Hall 67, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 28, 2015, Seton Hall 67, Creighton 66, Newark, N.J.
Jan. 10, 2015, Seton Hall 68, Creighton 67, Omaha, Nebraska
Feb. 23, 2014, Creighton 72, Seton Hall 71, Omaha, Nebraska
Jan. 4, 2014, Creighton 79, Seton Hall 66, Newark, N.J.
March 16, 1991, Seton Hall 81, Creighton 69, Salt Lake City, Utah
Projected Creighton starters
PG – Maurice Watson Jr.
G – Marcus Foster
G – Khyri Thomas
F – Cole Huff
C – Justin Patton
Projected Seton Hall starters
PG – Madison Jones
G – Khadeen Carrington
F – Desi Rodriguez
F – Ish Sanogo
F – Angel Delgado
When: Wednesday, 8et
TV: FOX Sports 2
Radio: AM970 (Gary Cohen & Dave Popkin)
Opening line: Seton Hall +9