No. 19 Seton Hall’s comfortable win over VCU product of protecting what’s earned

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NEWARK — The last two times a Kevin Willard-led team dropped out of the AP Top 25, they wouldn’t return for the rest of the season. This rendition looks here to stay.

You should remember — from your nightmares — the group spearheaded by Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore that raced out to a 15-2 start before dropping six straight and ultimately failing to make the NCAA tournament.

And of course the 2014-15 team in Isaiah Whitehead — and the current senior class’s — freshman season which started 13-3 before losing their spot in the top 25 prior to a dismal February and March.

This time around, Willard’s Seton Hall is of course more talented, but they look to have taken to heart the one-point loss to Rhode Island that knocked them from the land of the ranked.

Just ask Vanderbilt, Texas Tech, Louisville, and now VCU — when was the last time Seton Hall has strung together four wins as good as these in non-league play. That’s not a rhetorical question.

“Losing to Rhode Island, at No. 20 in the country, we knew how that felt, and we didn’t want to have that feeling again,” said Desi Rodriguez (17p, 7r, 4a) bluntly.

I believe the senior small forward, who has averaged 24 ppg and 7 boards since the Hall’s lone loss in Brooklyn.

Following their loss to Rhode Island in which Willard admitted that his team was not emotionally in it for the only time this season, Desi, and the rest of his guys, have been on a tear, seemingly hell-bent on Top 25 redemption.

Kevin Willard’s fatherly-like take on rankings was far from the politically correct “I don’t care”, including a humorous perspective on why Seton Hall will see their highest spot in the national landscrape since 2000-01 come Monday’s fresh AP Top 25, as well as a sincere look into a mentality he has instilled in his team.

“When we got ranked, we talked about protecting it and how much it’s important, and I talked to them yesterday for about an hour about things given and things earned,” said Willard.

“In life, you’re really going to appreciate things that are earned more than things that are given. What I talked to them about was that they’ve earned this ranking. It wasn’t given to them. We’ve played a tough schedule, had some big wins, we’ve earned the right to get ranked. And when you earn something, you want to take care of it.”

“I always try to teach my guys in life, people are going to give you stuff, and you’re going to take that and chuck it in the back of your closet; but the things that you’ve earned with your paycheck, that you go out and buy, you’re going to appreciate. And I think these guys have really appreciated the fact that they’ve worked very hard, they’ve sacrificed a lot to get this, and they don’t want to give it away.”

Despite a topsy-turvy first half, this is the most in control Seton Hall has been in a game for some time, relative to the opponent’s strength.

I’ll remind you that VCU was within a possession in the last five minutes of their losses to Marquette, Virginia, Texas, and Michigan.

Looking ahead, while it won’t be as easy as it appears on paper, Seton Hall has the potential to crack the top-15 and will more likely than not sport a 12-1 record heading into their Big East opener against Creighton just before the new year.

The road back to a ranking not seen in 17 years has been long and filled with more potholes than your average Jersey road in late February; Willard’s take on it touches on all facets.

“Someone just asked me that question, and I have to be honest: I was part of the problem for a while,” said Willard of why the Hall hasn’t reached such national heights since 2000-01.

“I’ve been here eight years. I’ve got to take some ownership of the fact that my first three or four years here were not the greatest. We were ranked my second year, but then year three was a disaster, year four, we were okay and year five, we should have been good.

“It hasn’t been easy getting here, and I’ve got to take some [blame] — everyday I wake up and I remind myself it’s taken us a long time to get here. It drives me to come to work every day, but I still was part of the problem. I’m not taking any credit for it.”

Willard would then go on a long tangent about how this teams’ upperclassmen haven’t gone home for summers so that they can work on their game — facts that are remarkable, but becoming ordinary for those that know what this team is all about.

And that’s the thing.

We — fans and media who have had their ears to the South Orange Ave. pavement — know what is deep within the engine of this team, driving it forward.

Hard work, of course raw talent, and a senior synergy which has produced as balanced team as any in the country.

Now opposing teams and the nation as a whole are starting to find out what Seton Hall is really about.