It was supposed to be a post-Christmas tune up for the Big East schedule, but now there is a bigger concern going into the Maine game on Saturday: Isaiah Whitehead.
Yesterday's news that an MRI found a stress fracture in Whitehead's foot and will sideline him for a few weeks complicates the narrative a bit. The Black Bears (1-9) are still weak, but Seton Hall will now look at the game as a tool to implement plans for playing without their star freshman guard, who will miss at the least a few Big East games.
Kevin Willard plans to get back to basics in preparation for the non-conference finale after giving the team a few days off for an early Christmas.
"These guys are getting a couple days off for Christmas, we haven't had a whole lot of time and these guys have been grinding," explained Willard post-Georgia. "So I'm glad everybody's going to get a couple days, and we'll come back on the 24th and we'll get back to the fundamentals a little bit, get back to what we do, being on the road you can kind of slip a little bit, because with young guys you have to consistently positively reinforce your fundamentals, your rebounding."
"That's really what hurt us [rebounding vs. Georgia], no matter what we gave up those easy shots, but we didn't get any second shots and we didn't stop them. Every time we got a stop it seemed like they got the ball back and we had to defend them. We'll hopefully get three good days of practice in, play Maine and then have three days to get ready for St. John's."
In the only previous meeting between the two schools, Seton Hall won comfortably 76-49 in 2012 when Patrik Auda inconspicuously broke the fifth metatarsal in his foot, sidelining him for the season. It will be the first time Seton Hall has played at Walsh Gym since a year ago in a 90-58 drubbing of Lafayette.
As we predicted this off-season, Maine and new head coach Bob Walsh are going through it. Maine lost two key players to transfer from their 6-23 team a season ago while part-time starter Ethan Mackey left the team amicably after nine games this campaign. A 1-9 start and the 334th-best KenPom rating later and the Black Bears are who we thought they'd be.
Maine's three players averaging in double figures are their three key returnees from a year ago. 6-foot-5 guard Shaun Lawton (11.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.7 apg), who almost transferred last spring, plays two-guard while freshman Aaron Calixte (7.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) has logged most of the minutes at point guard. At the three is returning shooting guard Zarko Valjarevic (11.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg), who has already attempted half the amount of three balls he shot last season (24-72, 33%) and is Maine's outside threat to watch.
At forward, Till Gloger is the third returnee (10.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg) to make an impact in the box score and has been helped by sophomore Marko Pirovic (7 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who only played a reserve role a season ago. Pirovic's status for Saturday is unknown after missing the last two games with a heel injury he sustained against LIU-Brooklyn.
To the surprise of no one, Maine is collectively sub-300 in a handful of KenPom statistical categories. Notably, the effective field goal percentage of the Black Bears' opponents is 349th-best, while the two-point percentage (57.6%) and three-point percentage (42.6%) of foes rank 346th and 345th, respectively. Maine plays at the 29th-fastest tempo and as a result the average length of their defensive possessions are the 21st-shortest at 16.5 seconds, which must also be a result of their leaky defense.
Three things to watch:
Who fills the Isaiah Whitehead void. Seton Hall should still win easily, but the focus of the game has shifted from Big East tuneup to post-Whitehead preparation. I'd expect Sterling Gibbs to reassume the point guard responsibilities that Whitehead had taken over while freshman Khadeen Carrington sees the rest of the time as lead guard. Does Kevin Willard play three in his backcourt without Whitehead? If not, expect an expanded role for Desi Rodriguez at small forward.
Hustle plays. It may be tough to gauge, especially over an extended period of game clock, but Seton Hall needs to show the extra effort on Saturday. While there are plenty of reasons to be happy with 9-2, I'm sure Willard will want to counteract the road trip with a business-like approach to Maine. Sunny Tampa and low-major quality USF are a thing of the past and the team will need to prepare better for St. John's (and the rest of the Big East) than they did Georgia. As far as on the court goes, the Bulldogs outperformed Seton Hall at just about every level, including hustle and little plays. Turning that around, especially with a key player out, should be a focus point over the next week.
Offensive sets. The pace will likely be up there with Seton Hall sitting 64th in tempo and Maine 29th, but the half court offense is worth keeping an eye on when it does materialize. The Black Bears aren't the best control group in this experiment, but Brandon Mobley and Angel Delgado have underperformed on offense in Seton Hall's two losses (collectively: 14 pts 4-8 fg; 10 pts 4-14 fg). If Mobley gets off to a slow shooting night, that has been an indicator he'll struggle while Delgado's Achilles heel has been foul trouble. Maine presents a ripe opportunity to get both guys active in the paint.
As for guards, Jaren Sina is 4 of his last 19 from three and 7 of his last 31. Sina's main role as a sophomore has been outside shooting, his 49 attempts are the most on the team, but he hasn't been a threat since the first four games of the season when he was 10 of 18 from long range. The cold shooting may make the smaller scope of Sina's role more noticeable, but he'll eventually need to get involved in another significant way, which may free up his outside shot.
KenPom says: No. 41 Seton Hall 86, No. 334 Maine 61 (98%)
Projected Maine starters:
PG - Aaron Calixte
G - Shaun Lawton
SG - Zarko Valjarevic
F - Marko Pirovic
F - Till Gloger
Time: Noon, Saturday (Walsh Gym)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: 970 AM
Opening line: TBD