A tougher non-league schedule may be coming at just the right time for Seton Hall.
Non-conference scheduling has not been Seton Hall's forte for some time now. Paralleling the Pirates' influx of talent via their top-15 incoming recruiting class, that looks set to change over the next two seasons highlighted with the addition of Missouri Valley Conference juggernaut Wichita State yesterday. The Shockers have lost just one non-conference home game - a Bracketbuster contest to VCU in February of 2011 - at Charles Koch Arena since November of 2008. Seton Hall will look to make that two times in seven seasons this December; the Shockers will travel to Prudential Center in 2015.
Most of Seton Hall's schedule has already been reported, but the addition of Wichita State struck something in me like adding a home/home series with a top-5 team should. Here's why:
The past eight seasons have encompassed the tenures of two head coaches in South Orange, but Seton Hall has produced just one non-conference schedule that has finished in the top-200 of KenPom's strength of schedule: 2010-11 (81st), Kevin Willard's first season. Since 2006-07, Bobby Gonzalez' first year as skipper, the Hall has finished 269th, 298th, 260th, 336th, 81st, 254th, 318th, and 344th in non-league schedule strength. Digging further, prior to 2010-11, Seton Hall's SoS had not broken the top-150 since the 2001-02 season.
Here is a list of opponents hosted by Seton Hall from 2006-present that ended their respective seasons in the top-100:
2006-07: (Penn, 97th)
2009-10: (Temple, 15th)
2010-11: (Richmond, 40th)
2011-12: (Mercer, 88th)
2012-13: (Stony Brook, 52nd)
Five in eight seasons; No high-major opponents; Three low-major opponents; 3-2 record.
As I broke down here in March when Seton Hall's final schedule strength ranked a big city's amount of schools away from last in the country, setting up a statistically tough schedule is not rocket science.
To be fair, that was in hindsight.
I also penned a non-conference scheduling cheat sheet last March before the Pirates' schedule was close to finalized. In it, I singled out seven local (NJ/NYC) schools that did not make my list due to poor RPI numbers. Seton Hall managed to schedule a whopping four of these schools - Saint Peter's, Fairleigh Dickinson, Monmouth, and N.J.I.T. - dooming their pre-Big East slate from the start. (Writer's joke: I had actually forwarded my list to former Seton Hall assistant Steve Sauers, who was handling the scheduling, last March. Perhaps he misread?)
That was not in hindsight.
After taking a peak at this consistent neglect of Seton Hall's season ticket holders and general fan base, it's not hard to empathize with fan gripes, a lack of game day tradition, and lets face it: annual poor attendance throughout November, December, and beyond. Just prior to Gonzalez and Willard, Louis Orr managed to schedule four top-50 opponents at Continental Airlines Arena during his five seasons at the helm in addition to quite a few marquee neutral site games, granted the talent level was a little bit different back then.
Still, the decade since has mostly been bereft of early season excitement ("The Time Is Now!" actually meant 2014, right?) in and around the Oranges, a concern which has surely done its damage to a once massive fan base. At least on the surface, the next two seasons look at to act as a counterbalance to this rapidly eroding non-conference enthusiasm.
Here's how Seton Hall's 2014-15 non-league schedule is shaping up:
Nov. 21 - Nevada (Paradise Jam)
Nov. 22/23 - Clemson / Gardner-Webb
Nov. 24 - Paradise Jam Game 3
Nov. 29 - George Washington
Dec. 6 - Rutgers
Dec. 9 - @ Wichita State
Dec. 18 - @ South Florida
Dec. 21 - @ Georgia
TBD - Mercer
TBD - Mount St. Mary's
Briefly, because I don't want to spoil South Orange Juice's comprehensive preview when the schedule is finalized, it looks like the Hall can play five or six opponents in the RPI/KenPom top-150 just from the above lineup. In comparison, Seton Hall locked horns with only two top-150 opponents this past season in Mercer (86th) and Oklahoma (33rd).
Further, the incomplete schedule contains three games against potential NCAA-bound opponents in Clemson, Wichita State, and Georgia. George Washington shouldn't be taken for granted either, as the Colonials lose Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood, but gain Kethan Savage, who missed the second half of last season's at-large NCAA tournament run with a broken foot.
In truth, next season's early home schedule doesn't look like it will proactively bring out fans by sheer appeal- George Washington projects to be the only top-100 opponent at Prudential Center before the new year - though hype via recruiting, a productive showing in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Rutgers' first non-league trip to Seton Hall's home court in multiple decades will attempt to supplement interest.
While not the most attractive schedule for home games next season, it sets up strongly for 2015-16, in which Seton Hall will host Wichita State, South Florida, and Georgia, while traveling to Rutgers. If aided by a potential early season tournament, that could shape up to be one of the more entertaining, hype-filled and fruitful (certainly for STHs) non-conferences in recent memory.
Tracking back to the present, this spike in schedule strength is surely not by chance. Recruits want to play on TV, play tough opponents, and compete in early season tournaments. Highly rated recruits make this a near certainty. These desires factored together with increased expectations and potential appear to have pushed Kevin Willard's scheduling hand - at least for the near future.
For about a decade, fans have drooled for nationally ranked recruits, and finally received a top-15 class. Of late, fans have rightfully complained about poor non-conference opponents at home - that looks to change real soon. Fans have also yearned for a return to the "glory days" since Tommy Amaker's great escape. Like the dates for most of the 2014-15 schedule, that last bit is to be determined, but all the right ingredients are gravitating toward South Orange Avenue.