St. John’s game kicks off important stretch for Seton Hall

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Despite losing four of their last five games, Seton Hall (13-6, 3-4) is still in solid shape if they take care of business over the next week and a half starting with a home test against basement team St. John’s (7-13, 0-7) on Wednesday night at Prudential Center.

18-point favorites over their Big East rivals, the Hall has slogged through a tough stretch of games – four ranked teams in five games – in which they’ve played well outside of the Creighton loss at home, picking up a top-50 win along the way when they won at the Dunk. With greener pastures ahead, Kevin Willard’s team can’t lose focus and must bring their A-game against the Johnnies and then Creighton and Marquette; 2-1 is the bare minimum outcome with a road game at Creighton being the biggest test.

In order to gain some momentum, a struggling St. John’s team that the Hall has only beaten once since 2012 will need to be dealt with first.

Chris Mullin’s young team is battling, but they’re winless on the road (0-4) this season and haven’t won a game in over a month since they upset Syracuse in mid-December, a 10-game span that features losses to Incarnate Word and NJIT. St. John’s best recent outcome was probably their 74-66 loss to Xavier that came down to the final possessions at Carnesecca Arena. This is clearly a program that has long-term rebuilding in mind rather than 2015-16.

Bereft of experienced talent that left alongside Steve Lavin in the off-season, Italian freshman guard Federico Musssini (12.8 ppg, 2.6 apg) leads St. John’s in scoring and is their top three-point shooter (41-127, 32%) while seniors Durand Johnson (11.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Felix Balamou (8.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg) add length plus experience on the wings and will match up with Derrick Gordon or Ish Sanogo.

For the first time in several games, Seton Hall should have the clear advantage in the paint after getting shredded by Xavier’s front line on Saturday. Chris Obekpa transferred from St. John’s in the off-season leaving a combination of European sophomore Amar Alibegovic (5.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg), freshman Kassoum Yakwe (5.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Christian Jones (7.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) to man the paint. Spanish freshman Yankuba Sima (8.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured hand he suffered against Xavier.

The Red Storm are the worst offensive team in the Big East (315th in efficiency) and struggle mightily across the board in offensive statistical categories, though they do rank first in the country in block percentage. One would think that replacing a resident rim guarder like Obekpa would be challenging, but 6-11 Yankuba Sima swats over 3 per game and has done well defensively; Kassoum Yakwe registers just under 3 per game too and has tallied 20 in the four games since Sima was sidelined.

Seton Hall will likely look to up the tempo against a St. John’s team that hasn’t scored more than 75 points since their win over Syracuse and should try to get into the lane and draw fouls or score in the paint, something that has been the team’s bread and butter so far this season. Willard’s guards should also be keen on getting Angel Delgado and Mike Nzei the ball down low in the paint in order to initiate the battle on the block; Delgado can’t afford to pick up two early fouls again.

This is a lose-lose game for Seton Hall unless they win by a Rutgers-like margin. They’ve got to win for obvious reasons, most importantly because St. John’s is 211th in RPI (ouch). Lose and it’s a bad loss. Win by anything less than 15-20 and fans will note how weak St. John’s is and chalk the game up as “expected.”

Bottom line: Seton Hall needs as many games out of their next three as possible and this is by far their easiest chance to add to the win column.

KenPom says: No. 42 Seton Hall 81, No. 251 St. John’s 62 (95%)

Last 10 meetings (Seton Hall 5-5; all-time 27-35)

Feb. 21, 2015, St. John’s 85, SETON HALL 72, Queens, N.Y.
Dec. 31, 2014, SETON HALL 78, St. John’s 67, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 13, 2014, St. John’s 68, SETON HALL 67, Newark, N.J.
Jan. 23, 2014, St. John’s 77, SETON HALL 76, Queens, N.Y.
Jan. 27, 2013, St. John’s 71, SETON HALL 67, New York, N.Y.
Feb. 14, 2012, SETON HALL 94, St. John’s 64, Newark, N.J.
March 3, 2011, SETON HALL 84, St. John’s 70, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 17, 2010, SETON HALL 59, St. John’s 50, Queens, N.Y.
Feb. 22, 2009, St. John’s 70, SETON HALL 65, Queens, N.Y.
Feb. 5, 2009, SETON HALL 91, St. John’s 81, Newark, N.J.

Projected St. John’s starters:

Felix Balamou (7.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Federico Mussini (13.2 ppg, 2.7 apg)
Ron Mvouika (8.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
Amar Alibegovic (5.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
Kassoum Yakwe (5.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.7 bpg)

Projected Seton Hall starters:

Isaiah Whitehead (15.5 ppg, 4.5 apg)
Khadeen Carrington (14.9 ppg, 2.4 apg)
Desi Rodriguez (12.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg)
Ismael Sanogo (4.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
Angel Delgado (9.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg)

When: 7pm, Wednesday
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: AM970 (Gary Cohen & Dave Popkin)
Opening line: Seton Hall -18

  • iratepirate

    I agree that this is a must-win. I don’t think SH can afford to lose to SJU or Depaul this season. Eitherwould be (150 or 200+ losses). Creighton has stepped it up and now represents a great road win. Not to mention trading with them will give us a fighting chance should be have similar conference records. 2-1 in the next three games is now a must. Really it’s more like we must be the Johnnies. Period.

    No lapses. No Willard-swoon. Just win. Frankly, this team has just as good a chance to get to the Tourney as Creighton or Georgetown, who are now the big competition. If Willard & Co. can’t beat the teams they should beat and steal 1 or 2 more he should be gone at end of season. If he goes 9-9 and we don’t make the tourney I’m actually willing to consider another year. If he under-performs again, he should be gone.

    • VinBick

      Irate, you are too kind. Ten wins, plus two wins at least in the BE Tournament, and another win in the Big Dance is minimum expectation for KW to be around for another year. He has the horses; the only question is whether he can lead them well enough to compete in the conference and with the top 68 teams in the country.

      Shouldn’t the fans expect that much from our head coach?

      • iratepirate

        I’ve never been accused of being too kind to Willard before. However, I’m more balancing my expectations with what I see from Seton Hall. 9-9 even without post-season is all they need for an excuse to keep him. “Progress” is what they will call it. There will also be lots of support calling for how Willard is “turning the corner”. To me that would all be BS, but that’s what will happen since keeping him means avoiding a buyout, which will be the administration’s chief concern. Never mind that Lyons will protect Willard regardless of how bad he does, but 9-9 will at least give him the chance to showcase Willard as a “good hire”.

        The fans, program, and players deserve better.

        We should have:
        A coherent half-court offense
        Good set plays that lead to easy buckets
        A team with solid fundamentals (help defense, FTs, boxing out, team rebounding)
        A team that improves as they play over the course of a season
        A coach that can recruit for key spots needed in his roster

        Willard has brought some good things like defensive intensity, but for some reason that intensity is not there very consistently, and we still play down to opponents often.

        I don’t want a coach that can only go to the tournament with a perfect roster of seniors. We need a coach that can coach UP and deal with adversity. Willard has not shown that. The trend of February swoons is also completely bewildering.

        10 wins in the normal season is absolutely what it would take for a ticket punch. 1 and 1 in the BE tourney would help. 1 and done in the BE tourney would have us nail-biting. I don’t care what happens in the NCAA tourney if we get there. Just get there.

        • VinBick

          If this team makes it in, it will be a first round 8-9 or worse position. Winning in the first round of the Big Dance should give KW some leverage for keeping his job and avoiding a costly buyout. Anything short of that, even his buddy has to cut the cord. Far too many chances given already to a guy with little credibility left if this team fails like his previous charges.

          • iratepirate

            No, his buddy doesn’t have to cut the cord. Haven’t heard any rumors. Nobody (including Chris) has said Willard is on the hot seat with the Administration. KW’s boss is someone he helped get hired into the AD job at Seton Hall. I guarantee Lyons will have his back even with his awful performance. I’m starting to think even an embarrassment like last year’s walk-off at the BE tourney wouldn’t move Lyons to act.

            Lyons handed Willard a giant extension that is giving the school further reason to hesitate pulling the trigger on him.

            Right now we still have a shot, but we are slipping. Losing conference record. Very uneven play game to game. Disciplinary benchings. Trying to stay positive even though a loss tomorrow would put a dagger in our season.

          • Fishjam

            I agree…..there is little chance Willard loses his job after this season unless things totally collapse like last year and some starters transfer again. Anything short of that, KW is back and he deserves to be IMO. While I still believe that anything less than a Tournament Invite will be a major disapointment, you can’t fire him without signing on for a rebuild.
            The great recruiting class has to be given an opportunity as upperclassmen to see what they can do. if Willard goes, anything besides a promotion of Shaheen or Fred Hill would likely lead to at least 1 or 2 key players from leaving the school also. In my opinion, if you’ve stuck with Willard thus far, you definitely give him the opportunity and don’t risk breaking up the core of the team.

          • fouline

            Gordon, Anderson(?) Whitehead and……….(Fill in the blank) will be gone next year.To say it’s a “rebuild” is assuming he built something. Not that I’ve noticed. We haven’t had a successful team since Louie. Gonzo and Willard share the same approach – free-for-all ball. And neither are/were successful. I think the talent recruited deserves better and so do the fans. Willard must go.

          • Fishjam

            If there was a way to guarantee all the key players remain, I’d be OK with a new coach. I’m not the biggest Willard fan but I don’t think now would be right time to jeopardize breaking up the team.
            I do think something is being built at Seton Hall. They had the best recruiting class with these Sophs in a Over a decade and they have a legit opportunity to be a Top 25 team next year. Finish this season strong, finally make the Tourney, keep the team together and next year will be the year!

  • Andrew Herbst

    Tomorrow is a must-win. No question about it. We have to beat the Johnnies twice and DePaul again if we have any aspirations of making the tourney. It all starts tomorrow.

  • Ryan Kelly

    Need to push the pace early in the game. Dont let St. John’s ever get comfortable. They hung around with Xaiver for a while.

    Need to force the issue with the press on defense and push the ball on offense. Dont let the Storm get into any type of flow. Theyre young and inexperienced need to take them out early. cant play down to the competition.

    if we can jump out to a big leaf id like to see them actually work on some of those offensive sets the ‘iratepirate’ is referring to within a coherent half court offense.

  • shufaninva

    I hate playing desperate teams, and we all know the Johnnies aren’t losing them all.

  • LBP

    Just play hard-St John’s is bad and have no answer for DelGado and Sonogo

  • Fishjam

    Really scares me to see them an 18-point favorite against such a rival who has beaten us 4 out of the last 5. I know its a different team and they have struggled but I hope they take the Johnnies seriously because they can play with anyone – ask Syracuse. They have 7 Freshmen and a few transfers, including 5 or 6 players from other counties so the team lacks coehesiveness but they do have ability. I just watched the Syracuse game again and they beat them soundly by moving the ball well against the Zone and shooting the lights out from 3.

    Italian PG Frederico Mussini is small but he is a solid distributor who can get hot from 3 if given a little room. Losing their Center Sima really hurts them inside as he’s a long athletic shot blocker with a great future and their only competent big man. They have 2 solid 6’6″ Senior wing/scorers in Ron Mvouika & Durand Johnson who can shoot 3’s and slash to the hoop.

    The Pirates game plan should be same as usual….. apply defensive pressure and look to push the ball in transition as much as possible to create opportunities to showcase our athleticism. In the halfcourt, they should be able to drive to the hoop at will if St John’s plays man. Mussini will have a very tough time defending any of our guards and without Sima, there’s no one to guard the basket. Must get in the paint to score and create. Also need to look for Delgado. He needs to get some swagger back and should have a big game….time for him to assert himself after getting taken to the woodshed by Xavier’s big men. Ish & Nzei also had frustrating games vs Xavier so I’d like to see them regain some confidence. If St Johns goes Zone – and they should – the Pirates must move the ball back and forth and attack the center and baseline/corners to keep looking for ways to get in the paint. Cannot settle for a bunch of long 3’s,

    • VinBick

      Relax, Fish. We have KW taking care of business. A 20 point laugher from start to finish.

      Hope lots of fans show to make big time noise. I’ll be there. Just look for the old, bald, fat guy in the blue Seton Hall hoodies in Section 19……

    • LBP

      nice job Fishjam

  • fouline

    What’s important about this game isn’t the score but how we play. I think it’s going to be a tough New York playground game. Could be lots of fun.

    • Fishjam

      Yes….play hard AND smart. At this point a W is a W. I’ll take them anyway we can get them but want to see the team keep improving and learn from past errors.

  • Fishjam

    Thank God for this guy this season, where would we be without him?……..

    “This is the time we become even stronger and tighter as a group. Losing back to back games. We grow and learn from our mistakes moving forward.”

    Derrick Gordon on Twitter

  • LBP

    Throw Back Unis tonite

  • LBP

    Okay another lackluster start -what excuse tonite?

    • Fishjam

      The tiny crowd was the excuse tonight.

      • LBP

        LOL

  • fouline

    The tiny crowd might have been Whitehead’s excuse for a bad first half. But the fans see the waste of opportunity and talent and are voting with their wallets. When the team is embraced by the fans the arena will be packed – no matter the opponent.