With only a handful of games remaining in a season that provided NJ hoop-heads with highs, lows and plenty of excitement, we are finally in the home stretch. Let’s take stock of where NJ’s two major programs are and explore why the end of February will be pivotal for both teams.
Playing in a must-win game to stay on the NCAA tournament bubble, the Pirates dialed up one of the most disappointing performances of the season at Villanova on Saturday. Even though they faced a Wildcats squad sporting a sub-.500 overall/conference record and situated beneath Seton Hall in Big East standings, a road win in Philly proved ever-elusive for the Hall (the Pirates have won at Nova just twice in roughly three decades). Saturday’s loss marks the first time all season that the Pirates’ have fallen to an opponent in the bottom half of the conference table.
Not that we want to give a premature eulogy for the ’22/23 season, but, to have any real chance of making the NCAA tournament, Seton Hall will need to win four out of its last five games—three of which are against ranked opponents, and two of those contests (UCONN and Providence) are away. Moreover, through 15 conference games, the Pirates have beaten just one team in the top half of Big East standings—a one-point home victory over UCONN, without head coach Dan Hurley on the sideline.
For the eternal optimists: the magic number for Seton Hall is 19 regular season wins. Getting four more wins means the Pirates will have beaten at least two ranked teams (including a minimum of one Quad 1 road win) in the process and leave them with a record of 19-12 (12-8 conf.)—a tournament resumé that would be presumably impossible for the committee to deny (barring a bad first round loss in the Big East tournament if the Hall remains a #6 seed). The likelihood of this happening? Highly unlikely, but we’re pulling for the Pirates.
Worth noting: 39.6 FG%, 18 turnovers vs Nova—two stats that are more emblematic of Seton Hall’s play earlier in the season than the performances we’ve grown accustomed to over the past month and a half; certainly not good enough to win on the road in the Big East. There’s no doubt that Seton Hall laid an egg in this one, but credit Villanova for playing good defense and attacking the Pirates’ weaknesses masterfully.
Dre Davis? One of the season’s pleasant surprises, Davis has missed the last four games after spraining his ankle during a road victory at Butler in January. The 6’6” wing has consistently provided the Pirates with efficient production on the offensive end (9 PPG, 47 FG%, 35.3 3P%, 86.3 FT%) and quality depth coming off the bench. Davis’ injury couldn’t have come at a worse time as the Hall had finally played its way into the March Madness bubble conversation, and, though the Pirates were able to take care of struggling DePaul and St John’s without him, Davis’ presence was sorely needed against Nova and Creighton when the Hall seemed to fade after making runs in the second half. Davis is rumored to be returning to action this week and, if so, should give the Pirates a much needed lift. Simply put: the Hall won’t be making a run at 19 wins without him.
The past week and a half has been particularly unkind to the Scarlet Knights. Following a nice neutral site win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden—which ultimately turned into a home game atmosphere thanks to the Rutgers faithful—it seemed like the Scarlet Knights were primed for a top-three finish in-conference and an outside shot at a protected seed in the big dance. The elation after beating Sparty was short-lived, though, once the reality of losing Mawot Mag (left game with ACL injury in the first half) for the season set in.
Feel the void: Sure, Rutgers was able to finish off Tom Izzo’s Spartans amidst what felt like a postseason atmosphere at the Garden; yet, the manifestation of Mag’s absence was on full display in the subsequent, back-to-back road losses to Indiana and Illinois. Costly turnovers, scoring droughts, mental lapses on both ends of the floor, failure to get timely stops on defense—common themes in both losses, and all areas of the game where Mag is typically impactful.
Viewed thus far in his career as more of an opportunistic offensive player than a polished scorer that commands a lot of touches, Mag has been quietly efficient on the offensive end. Not to rub salt in the wound, but, it bears pointing out that though the Scarlet Knights hardly leaned on Mag for points, he was really starting to come into his own on the offensive end—averaging double-digit scoring in the last five contests before Michigan State, and logging 7 points in just 11 minutes of play in the first half of that contest before injuring his knee.
In theory, Rutgers fans shouldn’t expect a huge drop-off in point production as Junior wing Aundre Hyatt, a more offensive-minded player, naturally slides into the starting five. In games where Hyatt logs more than 20 minutes (which should be every game from here on out), it’s almost a given that he’ll score in double figures. As the Scarlet Knight’s adjust to life without Mag, balanced, consistent offensive production from the remaining starters not named Cliff Omoruyi will become increasingly important. Paul Mulcahy, Caleb McConnell and Cam Spencer—all players who are more than capable of double-digit scoring—must avoid the disappearing act. Each member of the aforementioned trio has logged a 2-point performance in one of the last five games; you simply can’t have that sort of erratic production from veteran starters, particularly when the bench doesn’t boast much offensive firepower.
Speaking of the bench: As minutes increase out of necessity for Derek Simpson, Dean Reiber, Oskar Palmquist and even Antwone Woolfolk, each player will need to focus on offensive efficiency (Simpson, Reiber and Palmquist are capable of knocking down shots from anywhere, just not consistently) and contributing in the facets of the game where effort is paramount, namely, defense and rebounding—which just so happen to be the two areas where Mawot Mag was invaluable. Thus far, all parties have been exposed in their attempt to assume Mag’s role , whether it be due to a lack of athleticism, experience, discipline or awareness.
Going forward: There is still time to adapt to life without Mag. Of Rutgers’ remaining six games, five are against opponents positioned in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings and the two toughest matchups—Michigan (9th in Big 10, right behind RU) and Northwestern (2nd in Big 10)—are both home games. While Rutgers may or may not still be pushing for a geographically protected seed, this team is still in a great position to make the tournament. Splitting the next six contests (totally plausible) would put the Scarlet Knights at 19 wins—11-9 in-conference—and, considering their solid NET ranking, comfortably dancing.