Following two-year hiatus, Seton Hall-Rutgers rivalry is back

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From a Seton Hall perspective, you would think the past two meetings with Rutgers would be something to brag about, but the collective 56-point margin of victory was oddly depressing.

It looks like Friday night has marked a pivot point in the New Jersey rivalry.

The first Garden State Hardwood Classic was exciting at first due to the re-branding of the rivalry and the breakout performance from a freshman Isaiah Whitehead, who passed the 20-point barrier for the first of many times.

But Seton Hall led 42-19 with five minutes to play — in the first half.

And that was a Rutgers group who lost to Saint Peter’s and St. Francis (Pa.) by a collective 23 points and finished their season on a 15-game losing streak.

Last season was closer at first, but an Eddie Jordan group short on scholarships and playing without Deshawn Freeman would ultimately lose by the largest margin in series history: an embarrassing 29 points.

Seton Hall put a Rutgers team that would go 1-18 against Big Ten schools away right around halftime.

Going into last night’s game, anyone who was confidently predicting a large margin of victory for Seton Hall was, in my opinion, a little out of touch — but can you blame them given recent results? Any sort of Pirate blowout was dashed early on when Rutgers punched first and their stifling defense perplexed the Hall for the first 20 minutes.

We didn’t see anything like that, even for a brief stretch, during the last 80 minutes of Seton Hall-Rutgers hoops, indicating first-year head coach Steve Pikiell has made a tremendous impact already.

“A lot, they beat me up,” said Angel Delgado of how improved Rutgers was last night.

“That coach is really doing a really, really good job. I have a lot of respect for Rutgers right now, because they showed they can beat us. That was a great game, they have great players and I wish them the best.”

It’s interesting that Angel used the word respect to describe Rutgers, because Kevin Willard implied his team thought it would be an offensive cakewalk.

“From a defensive standpoint, this team understand what we want to do … For some reason, when it comes to the offensive end, they zone me out a little bit thinking they can do their own thing.”

“We showed them their numbers and their stats, and I told them how good of a defensive team Rutgers has become and how good of a job Steve [has done],” said Willard of what turned the game around at half time.

“It was just a matter of them — it was kind of like South Carolina. We went into halftime and I said ‘You guys tried your way, now you have to try my way.’”

While wins and losses ultimately matter for fans, who sport a bias by definition, an annual 20-point beat down of a struggling opponent isn’t terribly helpful for the rivalry as a whole and it looks like it instilled somewhat of a lackadaisical attitude toward Rutgers last night. 

You know the sports adage that goes something like: Yes these two teams have a gap in skill, but anything can happen in a rivalry — they span the bridge in talent.

While there generally has been a historical talent gap in Seton Hall’s favor, it disappeared over the past decade (6-point average margin of victory) and kept churning out fun-to-watch results.

If last night was any indication, that is here to stay.

“It’s great,” said Willard when posed with the question of how Rutgers being good affects Seton Hall.

“I think the more teams that are good in this area, the more local kids are going to say this is a really good place to play basketball. As crazy as it sounds, I want St. John’s to do good. I just think the more local teams are good, the more buzz we’ll get, the more attention we’ll get, you get a crowd like this — it can only be beneficial for all the teams involved.”

“I think people did see good basketball tonight,” commented Steve Pikiell, who was visibly frustrated with his team’s loss.

“I watched the last two years of Rutgers-Seton Hall, [and] I think people enjoyed this. We’ll be back and be more competitive the next time.”

When accounting for a Seton Hall program that has recently found unprecedented stability under Kevin Willard, a rebuilt Rutgers hoops infrastructure that includes a hungry Pikiell and an adept AD in Pat Hobbs, and just one graduate transfer per school currently set to leave next summer, fans have plenty to look forward to in the next chapter of this Jersey rivalry.