Last New Year's Eve, Seton Hall made what I thought was a statement of intent at the time by winning their Big East opener at Providence without Gene Teague and without the help of the officials.
The Pirates then went on to lose at home to Creighton and Villanova and drop a tough one at Marquette to start conference play in a 1-3 hole.
This season, the team will look to build on the confidence it gained from beating a ranked opponent without a key starter and respond differently than a year ago.
"I think it does," said Kevin Willard when asked whether the team gains confidence after the win. "I think we played Providence last year when we didn't have Eugene [Teague] and we got a big 'W', we've got to now try back this up a little bit. These guys have to come back with the same focus and same energy they did [today] for a very good Villanova team."
An undeniably tough ask, upsetting No. 6 Villanova at sold out (9,800) Prudential Center on Saturday would give Seton Hall consecutive wins over ranked foes and would surely vault them into a ranking of their own on Monday. The Pirates missed a similar chance when they played at No. 11 Wichita State nearly a month ago. Seton Hall hasn't won consecutive games against Villanova since the 2002-04 seasons under Louis Orr.
"Our team is just focusing on us, and where we're going and how we get better. If we get ranked, great. If we don't, we have to continue to work hard and get better," said Willard when asked about national attention. "We never really worry about what other people are getting or receiving. Our motto is kind of if we work hard and do what we're supposed to do, then our accolades will come."
"Psh, I'm honestly thinking about Villanova on Saturday," Sterling Gibbs said post-St. John's when asked about top-25 rankings. "That's a big game for us. If we're able to play them the way I envision us playing, everything will work itself out."
Besides the loss of James Bell through graduation, this is pretty much the same, but more developed, Villanova team from a season ago.
In Jay Wright's backcourt, Ryan Arcidiacono's (8.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) production is down, especially from three (22% compared to 34% last season), but Dylan Ennis (11.2 ppg, 3.1 apg) and sixth-man Josh Hart (10.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 12-28 3pt) have done well to step up their roles in the absence of Bell. 6-foot-6 Darrun Hilliard (12.3 ppg, 2.1 spg) is leading the team in scoring and has reached double figures in ten games this season. Whitehead's length may be missed defensively here.
The Wildcats are historically known as a guard-oriented team, but Daniel Ochefu (9.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg) and JayVaughn Pinkston (10.8 ppg, 6 rpg) may be the toughest forward tandem Seton Hall encounters this season. Versatile 6-foot-6 Kris Jenkins (7.8 ppg) is no slouch as the first forward off Jay Wright's bench, either. The sophomore has hit 20-of-53 (37.7%) triples this season, the second highest percentage on the team.
Villanova is strong across the board in KenPom, but is fairly average on the glass (130th OReb%, 134th DR%) and just 126th in three-point percentage. The Cats will generally have a two-in, three-out look with Arcidiacono, Ennis and Hilliard being capable from beyond the arc. Jenkins and Hart are both threats from deep off the bench as well.
Three things to watch:
Ochefu and Pinkston vs. Mobley and Delgado. Chris Obekpa is a force, but Daniel Ochefu and JayVaughn Pinkston will be at another level. I assume Kevin Willard will be mixing in some pressure and zone defensive looks to try and negate the forward battle, but the Wildcat big men will get theirs at times.
I'm not entirely sure what the defensive match up will be either, though Delgado on Pinkston makes more sense physicality-wise. The freshman big will be put to the test defensively with Pinkston sporting the 41st-best free throw rate (ability to get fouled) in the country. Ochefu is rebounding at the 34th-best rate on the defensive glass and will be Delgado's main opponent in that battle. Expect Rashed Anthony to see more significant minutes again.
A game plan for Gibbs. With one difference-maker out and the other, Gibbs, now well-known, Jay Wright will surely game plan for the lead guard. He beat Villanova at the Garden last March and just torched St. John's, the visitors would be smart to try and make other Seton Hall players beat them tomorrow. If that happens, the Pirates will need a collective effort again to keep this one close.
Willard's defensive chess move. Seton Hall's skipper has pulled a lot of the right strings defensively this season, what will he try tomorrow? He has a fifth starters spot to use an early wildcard (will he start Khadeen Carrington or Desi Rodriguez over Stephane Manga instead?) and somewhat of an upper hand after holding Villanova to 4-of-19 from downtown in the Big East Tournament. One of the ways to stop Angel Delgado from producing is to initiate the battle by making him defend, something Ochefu and Pinkston can do. How will Willard counter?
Last 10 meetings (SHU 2-8; Series: 20-37):
March 13, 2014, SETON HALL 64, Villanova 63, New York, N.Y.
Feb. 7, 2014, Villanova 70, SETON HALL 53, Villanova, Pa.
Jan. 8, 2014, Villanova 83, Seton Hall 67, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 25, 2013, SETON HALL 66, Villanova 65, Newark, N.J.
Jan. 18, 2012, Villanova 84, SETON HALL 76, Villanova, Pa.
Feb. 15, 2011, Villanova 60, SETON HALL 57, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 2, 2010, Villanova 81, SETON HALL 71, Villanova, Pa.
Jan 6, 2009, Villanova 89, SETON HALL 85 (ot), Newark, N.J.
Feb. 9, 2008, Villanova 72, SETON HALL 70, Villanova, Pa.
Feb. 10, 2007, Villanova 78, SETON HALL 69, East Rutherford, N.J.
KenPom says: No. 6 Villanova 72, No. 35 Seton Hall 68 (36%)
Projected Villanova starters:
PG - Ryan Arcidiacono
G - Dylan Ennis
G - Darrun Hilliard
F - JayVaughn Pinkston
C - Daniel Ochefu
When: Saturday, Noon
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 570 AM
Opening line: Villanova -7.5