It's been just four days since the Pirates beat Georgetown and put themselves in the driver's seat for the Big Dance, but it seems like an eternity.
Why? Because this little rematch was on the horizon. That day is finally here. And it's Senior Day to boot, with an expected sellout of the Rock that includes over 1200 students. The archrivals are back in town, and everyone knows how big this game would be even if Seton Hall didn't control its own destiny.
2011-12 record: 12-16 (4-11 Big East)
All-time series record: 35-26
Last meeting: 2/8/12 (59-54 SHU W)
Since this is a rematch, we know all about the personnel at Rutgers, so i'll keep this (relatively) brief.
For starters, it's the last home game for Herb Pope, Jordan Theodore, and All-American Walk-On Peter Dill (who gets the start tonight, by the way, something that's sure to delight Pirate fans and draw huge cheers). All of these players will be missed, and each of them has had a long, winding journey to get where they are today.
For Theodore, he was the second point guard to commit to Bobby Gonzalez out of high school, and he was an obvious fit for that system- he was talented with the ball, able to make plays in transition with ease while always being in the top-2 on the team in terms of perimeter defense (on the ball, he's been #1 for the last three seasons). After Gonzalez was fired, Theodore had serious thoughts about transferring before a chat with Iona point guard Scott Machado changed his mind.
I think I can speak for all when I say that Seton Hall fans are thankful for that chat. After a very up-and-down first season as the starting point guard under Kevin Willard, he's blossomed into a true floor general and leader, something that's still remarkable to me even at this point in the season. He's 10 AST away from passing Golden "Sunny" Sunkett for the all-time record for AST in a single season, and in a twist that you just have to love, Sunkett, who's been battling health issues in the last few years, will actually be in the building to see if Theodore can pull it off tonight against Rutgers. He's had amazing games, he's had clunkers, but he's had a big impact on the program, and as a senior whose witnessed his entire career firsthand, I can't picture Seton Hall Basketball without him.
For Pope, the road has been even more winding. After a brilliant high school career in Aliquippa, PA, Pope was shot several times at a party his senior year. This caused him to get as far away from the steel city as possible, committing to New Mexico State. After his head coach there, Reggie Theus, left for the NBA, Pope decided to transfer to Seton Hall to play for Gonzo, and after sitting out a year, he quickly established himself as one of the better rebounders in all of college basketball, averaging a double-double and leading the Big East in rebounding his first year in South Orange.
After Willard took the job, Pope nearly died following a collapse after a workout at Walsh Gym, and how he survived can only be described as divine intervention. His junior season, he was a shell of himself, but still averaged close to a double-double. This season, Pope's back to being one of the best post players in the conference, even better than he was his sophomore year. His rebound (no pun intended... OK, maybe it was intended) this season was (and is) one of the feel-good stories in college hoops and although he can still sometimes get carried away on the court, he's been just as valuable as Theodore because of his presence in the post the last few years. When you consider what he's been through in his 20-some-odd years, you can't help but root for him. He will be sorely missed.
For Dill, he became an overnight sensation because of SportsCenter. The most-watched ESPN program picked up on his celebrations on the bench during Seton Hall's win over UConn back in January, and the train hasn't stopped moving for him. He may be the most-beloved walk-on ever at the Hall, and it's all genuine. I interviewed him for Seton Hall media day, and what everyone now sees is what I saw that day- a guy who has an infectious spirit and a quick wit that gets everyone smiling. I have still yet to hear him sing, though- he told me he was the best singer on the team. If his voice is as good as his team spirit, he should win a Grammy or two, or five. He'll get the start tonight, like Darnell Gatling before him, and have his moment in the spotlight. I couldn't think of anyone more deserving.
Ok, so I lied about keeping it brief. Can you blame me? This is Senior Night for yours truly as well. I'll be providing color commentary and hosting Hall Line on WSOU, and I won't believe it's my last game at the Rock until it's actually over. I distinctly remember going to Prudential Center for opening night four years ago, and being the only student to attend the women's basketball game before the men's game vs St. Francis that night. From then to now, it's been a blur, but I remember every game in it's own right.
Since this quickly turned into a bit of a Senior Night "Confessions of a Pirate" thing, let's get to the keys to the game before I start to tear up again....
Seton Hall will win if:
- They defend and crash the boards. What really worked to Seton Hall's advantage in the first game against Rutgers this season was the defense and rebounding. The matchup zone confused Rutgers' frosh backcourt and neither Jerome Seagears nor Eli Carter nor Myles Mack had good days. Couple this with the fact that the Pirates' frontcourt of Pope, Brandon Mobley and Fuquan Edwin combined to outrebound Rutgers' entire team 31-30, and you got an effort where the complete game for Theodore (24 PTS) was enough to get the win, along with some timely threes from Aaron Cosby. Rutgers will come out strong, looking to spoil Senior night as the Pirates did two seasons ago at the RAC, and rebounding is mostly effort. A strong game on the boards will benefit Seton Hall once again.
- The sellout crowd feels like one. Some of this has to do with how the Pirates play, but if Rutgers thinks they know what a road crowd feels like, they haven't faced one that will be this intense. Rivalry games on the road demand another level of toughness, both mentally and physically, and the crowd (most of whom will be rooting against the Scarlet Knights) can play a huge role in this game. If the Rock gets rockin', the young Knights will have a whale of a task against the leadership of Theodore and the Pirates' defense coupled with a loud crowd. Memo to Pirate fans- as J-Lo once said, LET'S GET LOUD!
- The seniors play under control. Theodore and Pope will be especially hyped for Senior night and rightfully so, but rather than try to blow Rutgers out of the water, the seniors need to play under control. Emotions will be there, and probably will be raw, but controlling them against a Rutgers defense that will be looking for turnovers is key in this game. If the seniors play under control, it will give confidence to the young guns as well, which has been a key all season long.
Rutgers will win if:
- They can make outside shots. Rutgers couldn't buy a basket from beyond the arc at home vs SHU a couple weeks ago, even when they were open, which wasn't too often. Mack in particular, the best shooter Rutgers has, had a stinker of a game, and Carter's effort from deep wasn't much better. Threes could keep Rutgers in it, but they'll be tough to get against Seton Hall, who's been one of the best teams at defending the three in the Big East all season long.
- Gil Biruta stays on the floor. Last game, Biruta struggled with early foul trouble, and after that just struggled, period. The Scarlet Knights need him on the floor to defend against Pope, because without him, there isn't anyone who can hope to match up with him on the Rutgers roster.
- Dane Miller steps up. He had 17 PTS, 10 REB and 3 BLK in his last game at the Rock, a Rutgers victory. He's been wildly inconsistent this season, and Rutgers is a different team when he plays well.
Bottom line is the Pirates have to channel their emotions and focus on the task at hand tonight, as they look for a sweep of Rutgers for the third time in four years. Pledge to Wear Blue, and Let's Go Pirates!