The last time Seton Hall strung two wins together over Rutgers in the Battle for New Jersey, the year was 2010. It was Bobby Gonzalez' last season at the helm of the South Orange, New Jersey school and current Seton Hall assistant Fred Hill was in charge, if you can call it that, in Piscataway.
Part of a four-game Pirate Blue streak in the series, the run has been followed up by five Rutgers wins, three for Seton Hall and a mini three-game streak that kept bragging rights at the large state school. This same back-and-forth period has featured landmark moments of Rutgers joining the Big Ten, which prompted an eight-year annual series to be drawn up between the schools, and most recently the addition of a trophy to the mix.
One thing in common over the last decade? The fierce meetings between the intrastate schools have always been close. Since Seton Hall ran Rutgers out of Continental Airlines Arena 74-58 in January of 2005, the 20 meetings have been decided by an average of 5.6 points and five overtime games, one of which went to a second extra period.
As Jerry Carino has documented to perfection, nearly every single one of these contests included their fair share of controversy, which makes the locals wonder what could have been of his nationally overlooked rivalry if the two teams had been making NCAA tournaments over the same time period.
This year isn't much different than the past several chapters that have been written in this rivalry saga. One team, Rutgers, appears set to have a tough season in a Big Ten that at first glance looks a lot like the early 2000s Big East. They've dropped a pair of head-scratchers in the form of an 18-point loss to 2-6 Saint Peter's at home and a 45-26 defeat at the hands of No. 7 Virginia that included just eight second half points from the Scarlet Knights. Not to be overlooked, the Scarlet Knights have also notched wins against Vanderbilt and Clemson during the same span, though both look unlikely to make noise in their respective conferences.
The other combatant, Seton Hall, has won six of six with a roster dominated by underclassmen - notably six freshmen - and just one senior starter. All but one of the Hall's six wins, a grueling 58-54 victory over an NCAA-caliber George Washington team, have included at least a 19-point lead. Despite the on-paper gulf created between Seton Hall and Rutgers over their respective bodies of work thus far, we all know this one is destined to be a nail-bitter - history tells us that. Coming out of the South Orange camp is a theme of taking pride in being the best in the state.
"Coming into the season, it may not be the same for them, but we compare yourself with who's in your state," downplayed Seton Hall junior guard Sterling Gibbs earlier this week. "You compare yourself with how we match up with Saint Peter's, how you match up with Rutgers, even last year when we played FDU. The fact that we want to be the best team in the state of New Jersey, so this is where you really prove that."
For Seton Hall, one of their primary focal points will be getting six freshmen prepared for their first college rivalry game. Of the newcomers, only redshirt freshman Rashed Anthony has a general feel of what to expect Saturday after being on the bench for the Pirates' six-point win at the RAC a year ago. For freshmen like Isaiah Whitehead, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado, and Khadeen Carrington, the only rivals they have known are Jefferson, Roselle Catholic, and Christ the King, respectively.
"Honestly, it's just another game," said Gibbs of the impact of the rivalry on his freshmen teammates. "These guys have been through it. Especially this group, this group is a different type of freshmen group. It's not like you're coming in with your regular freshmen who have a big curve, it's just another game. We played in a championship game [Paradise Jam], and they've played great so we just want to go out there and play the same way this game."
It should be noted that Gibbs' 27-point effort, then a career-high, in his first Seton Hall-Rutgers game last season was the most points scored by any player since Jeremy Hazell in 2011 (27 pts) and Hazell again in 2009 (35 pts). As for sophomore guard Jaren Sina, he partially shares some of the same views as his backcourt mate.
"I just try to tell them, it's going to be intense," said Sina on the advice he'll give guys like Whitehead, Carrington, Delgado and Rodriguez. "It's a rivalry game, it's an in-state game, it's big for the fans, the coaches, for everyone. It's just another game at the same time, but it's going to be intense."
Look for a scouting report, three things to watch for, and game info later this afternoon.