It's finally here.
The latest chapter in one of the more underrated rivalries in all of college basketball will be written tonight in Piscataway. It's two gladiators of the Garden State, whose fanbases can't stand the sight of the others' colors let alone the teams those colors are attached to.
It's Seton Hall. It's Rutgers. And it's a guaranteed source of intense competition.
Here's the preview:
2011-12 record: 12-12 (4-7 Big East)
All-time series record: 34-26
Last meeting: 3/8/11 (76-70 SHU L; OT)
Both teams won on the others' home floor last season, and in the third meeting, the senior leadership of Jonathan Mitchell, Mike Coburn and James Beatty (all of whom made big plays down the stretch) overcame the individual brilliance of Jeremy Hazell in a crushing loss for the Pirates.
No doubt that will be on the minds of Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore, as Seton Hall goes for (can you believe it?) FIVE straight wins at the RAC. This time, it's the Hall that has the seniors, and those senior will need to lead in what will be a hostile environment, as usual.
This year, Rutgers looks pretty much completely different from last year's edition. Mike Rice brought in a heralded recruiting class that makes this a very interesting matchup between youth and (relative) experience. Leading the way is the freshman-filled backcourt of Eli Carter, Jerome Seagears and Myles Mack. Carter is a talented scorer and about as explosive as kerosene. When Carter gets going, he's the type of player where all you need to do is get out of his way. Seagears is the nominal starting point guard at the moment. While his playmaking skills are a little lacking at this point in his career, he's a good defender and brings good energy on the court. Mack is diminutive, but has deep range on his jump shot, and after a very rocky start to the year, he now comes off the bench, and has taken a liking to that role much more. Each guard has his strengths and weaknesses, and although none of them are taller than the Hall's Aaron Cosby, they are pests in Rice's style of pressure defense.
Then there is the frontcourt. Gilvydas Biruta is a strong player down low who's got more skill than you would think upon seeing him for the first time, and he is a perpetual hustler. Starting alongside him for a while now has been frosh forward Derrick Randall, who's a pretty good rebounder and gives Rutgers some good defensive skill down low (he's longer than Biruta). Joining those two are veteran backup Austin Johnson, and two more newcomers in Kadeem Jack (who was injured for a good chunk of the year, and hasn't really broken out what he really is, which is a long, athletic, shot-blocking big man) and Greg Lewis.
In terms of wings, Rutgers has two in Mike Poole and Dane Miller. Poole's game will instantly remind you of Robert "Stix" Mitchell- he is a solid mid-range shooter who can hit a three as well on offense, and a defender who fills in the gaps as a "glue guy."
Miller has been a giant mystery this year. At times, his energy and defensive abilities make the Scarlet Knights a completely different team. At other times, he completely disappears. He and Fuquan Edwin ratcheted up the intensity in the offseason, going right at each other and giving everything they had.... in a SUMMER LEAGUE game. That matchup could determine who wins this game (more on that in a moment).
Miller is the poster child for Rutgers as a team this season, actually- extremely inconsistent in all phases of the game. It's not as bad as it was at the beginning of the year for the Scarlet Knights, but the RAC crowd has been very good this year so far, and I expect them to make it hard on Seton Hall to try and exploit any inconsistencies that may show up.
Seton Hall will win if:
- The seniors play like seniors. Other than Pope, Theodore and Edwin, the Pirates are just as young as Rutgers is. The common thread of the losing streak (other than not being able to buy a bucket) is the struggles of the two Pirate seniors. With their NCAA hopes hanging on by a thread and with a 6-game losing streak coming in, Seton Hall needs this game badly. And they need the upperclassmen to lead them to victory.
- Fuquan Edwin wins his matchup with Dane Miller. Edwin at his best is when he's getting out in transition on the offensive end, knocking down his threes with an unorthodox but successful stroke, and being one of the biggest pests in the nation on defense. There's an electricity between him and Miller, who will likely be responsible for guarding him most of the game. If he gets the best of Miller, numbers-wise or when he's being checked by the Rutgers junior, it will be huge.
As an aside to that key for the Pirates, I think Seton Hall needs to push the pace and get out in transition, where Edwin can really shine, and where there will be opportunities at easy baskets. Lord knows the Pirates need easy baskets right now. Because I don't think there will be too many instances where Rutgers will fall asleep and allow a leak-out, a turnover-forced transition game (ironically, another area in which Edwin can help) will greatly help Seton Hall. Heck, even when Rutgers gets back in time, there needs to be a so-called "secondary break," where the offense still moves the ball as quick and decisively as they would in a transition opportunity so as not to let the defense get too set in their ways. Look for the upperclassmen's stat lines and the transition stats to be key tonight.
Rutgers will win if:
- They keep the ball out of the lane on defense. Rice likes to play a man-to-man defense, but against the Pirates, you may see a zone because of the Hall's shooting struggles, and to keep the ball out of the paint. In a man defense, Seton Hall can get it down to Pope on the baseline or block, and when the inevitable double-team comes, there is always a player open somewhere. Against a zone, post-ups are difficult, and kick-out opportunities less sure to find an open teammate. I think the rest of this year Coach Willard needs to come armed with a zone offense because until Seton Hall gets themselves out of their shooting slump, there's no reason to play man-to-man unless a team is set in its ways (a la UConn).
- Eli Carter goes off. Seton Hall's defense is difficult to score against for a veteran team, let alone one that starts 3 freshmen at times. The one player who can really bust their zone and score regardless of what defense you play or how good you play it is Carter, capable of pulling up on the move or taking the ball strong to the hoop. Seton Hall needs to know where he is at all times.
The atmosphere will be intense. The coaches will be intense. The game will be intense (no guarantees on pretty to watch). Rutgers wants to break the Hall's streak at the RAC. Seton Hall wants to break their losing streak and keep their Big Dance hopes alive.
It's Seton Hall. It's Rutgers.