Seton Hall rolled over Rutgers 81-54 in Newark yesterday to capture the first Garden State Hardwood Classic crown. With the rivalry win comes a Jersey-shaped trophy, pictured in the photo above, that gives the contest the feeling of a tournament final.
What if it actually was a tournament?
New Jersey has eight Division I schools, a perfect number for a small tournament: Seton Hall, Rutgers, Princeton, N.J.I.T., Saint Peter's, Rider, Monmouth, and Fairleigh Dickinson. One of those schools, N.J.I.T., knocked off Michigan on the road yesterday. Why not establish an annual Jersey-only cup with these schools to see who, more accurately, is the best team in the state?
After a convincing win yesterday, Seton Hall goes on to play Saint Peter's later this week in an unofficial final of sorts; recall that the Peacocks upset Rutgers in an 18-point shocker at the RAC last month. But Seton Hall doesn't schedule Princeton, generally the third-best school in the state, and Rutgers has recently backed out of their longstanding non-conference meetings with the Tigers. The two high-majors play their six local foes on a rolling basis and the unofficial bragging rights of the best team in the state usually defaults to the winner of Seton Hall - Rutgers.
Here's the hypothetical scenario for a clear-cut best team in New Jersey.
An eight-team field appears optimal in this situation. Each school will have three opponents (even if you lose, more on this later), which is more or less in line with the Jersey teams that are scheduled annually, even for the high-majors. Looking at this season, Seton Hall plays Saint Peter's and Rutgers while the Scarlet Knights play Saint Peter's, Fairleigh Dickinson, Seton Hall, and Monmouth. Princeton plays Rider, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Saint Peter's, while Monmouth's beefed up schedule only allows for one Jersey opponent in their non-conference.
The one drawback with scheduling here is the MAAC. Saint Peter's, Monmouth, and Rider all compete in the same conference, and therefore face each other twice in conference play. In an eight-team tournament, a losers bracket would be mandatory to keep a team's total amount of non-conference games static, so there's a high chance that these schools would meet like Butler and Georgetown did at the Battle 4 Atlantis. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing since it has the potential to create more engrained local rivalries, but it's notable. Just look at perhaps the biggest rivalry in soccer: Real Madrid plays Barcelona three or four times per season directly due to non-league play tournaments.
As for logistics, Prudential Center is the most accessible via public transportation, but accommodations would have to be made due to the New Jersey Devils' NHL schedule. The event could be held from Friday to Monday, similar to what we saw in the Paradise Jam this year.
A losers bracket could be moved to the Rutgers Athletics Center, which hosts the NJSIAA state high school tournaments. The Izod Center (Meadowlands) is still a thing, but a thing that shouldn't be seriously considered. Trains only run to the Meadowlands during events that are estimated to draw X-amount of fans, this event not being one of them. And who wants to drive their car through swamps to get to the game anyway?
A potential bracket that separates MAAC schools and includes rough seeding according to talent:
Now, the not-so-fun part: Why this wouldn't work.
- For the high-majors, I'd argue these three guaranteed games would be a scheduling block that replaces the local schools they would otherwise contact to play. Instead of scheduling Monmouth and Saint Peter's and playing Rutgers in their annual rivalry game, Seton Hall would play in the Garden State Hardwood Classic tournament. The problem here is that there's no guarantee that the Hall and Rutgers meet whereas right now there is via a contract. This apparent downgrade wouldn't be appealing to either AD.
- Non-conference tournaments. The NCAA currently has a limit of one on the amount of non-conference tournaments a school may compete in. This would obviously have to be modified or an exception be made or Rutgers and Seton Hall lose out. The level of opposition isn't nearly strong enough to substitute a Garden State Hardwood Classic tournament for even a less-marquee Paradise Jam or Charleston Classic event. This would have little to no effect on the other six schools.
- Even though N.J.I.T. moved up 32 spots after beating a ranked Michigan team yesterday, the field isn't strong enough to spike interest, especially from Seton Hall and Rutgers. The KenPom rankings of the eight N.J. schools as they stand today: Seton Hall (51), Rutgers (172), Princeton (180), Monmouth (183), Saint Peter's (189), Rider (210), N.J.I.T. (261), Fairleigh Dickinson (302). When Princeton is nearly Harvard-level good, Rutgers is a middle of the pack Big Ten team, and one of the low-majors is the top of their conference (ex: Saint Peter's in 2010-11) all in the same season, then things would get interesting.
For the reasons I listed above and perhaps many more, this event will not even come close to being established. For now, New Jersey hoops aficionados can only dream of a Seton Hall - Rutgers/Princeton tournament final game for state bragging rights. Hypothetical event sponsors would have nightmares of an N.J.I.T. - Saint Peter's final that draws 500 fans should intrastate upsets occur like last season when Fairleigh Dickinson beat both Seton Hall and Rutgers, Princeton won at the RAC, and the Hall also lost to Saint Peter's.
In the meantime, a 27-point win over Rutgers will have to do the trick for Seton Hall fans.