Wallowing in five straight losses that have bounced Seton Hall from the doors of the NCAA tournament to at least 10-deep in line for the Dance, any type of late-season run needs to begin sooner than later.
Around a 3-seed in the NIT prior to losing games to Providence and Villanova over the last week, Seton Hall (15-11, 5-9, RPI: 69, SOS: 48) has little shot at making the tournament everyone will be watching next month barring a highly improbably winning streak. The Hall has about a 2 percent chance (KenPom, RPIForecast) of winning their next four games, which would be a prerequisite of landing themselves on the bubble before their trip to Madison Square Garden, and have not strung more than two wins together over Big East-caliber opponents this entire season.
Taking three of the next four would at least require a berth in the Big East Tournament semis to be strongly considered, leaving the NIT as the most likely post-season destination, but even that scenario is under fire if the Pirates' downward spiral continues on the current trajectory. Wins over St. John's, Georgetown and Creighton would be needed for the Hall to crack the RPI top-50 heading into the BET according to RPIForecast.com.
That's the reality that Seton Hall is currently faced with after a month of basketball that was about as bad as it comes, culminating in Sterling Gibbs' frustration-induced forearm blow to Ryan Arcidiacono on Monday night. Gibbs will miss Saturday's game in Queens and next Saturday's home clash with Creighton due to a two-game suspension handed down by Kevin Willard.
On the other side of the tracks is St. John's, who have traded places with Seton Hall and are now the Big East's primary bubble team after Xavier picked up an important road scalp at rival Cincinnati last night, boosting their NCAA tournament hopes. The Johnnies (17-9, 6-7, RPI: 41, SOS: 25) had won three straight but crashed and burned at the Verizon Center when faced with an impressive Georgetown performance and have their backs against the wall in what they will see as a must-win on Saturday.
Seton Hall senior forward Brandon Mobley looks set to return from a hyperextended knee that kept him out on Monday while Red Storm center Chris Obekpa has been battling a foot injury and guard D`Angelo Harrison (18.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.9 apg) was playing through a calf tweak against the Hoyas. Both Johnnies are officially game-time decisions but are expected to play.
Instead of playing at the Garden - the two schools have only met there once since Steve Lavin and Kevin Willard were named head coaches prior to the 2010-11 season - Carnesecca Arena will be the battleground on Saturday. Somewhere on the arena spectrum between Walsh and the Rutgers Athletic Center, it will be a formidable atmosphere for the visitors. Unlike former coach Bobby Gonzalez, who openly whined about playing in Queens instead of the Garden, Kevin Willard has deemed it a smart move.
"I think they're smart putting us in Carnesecca," said Willard earlier this season. "I wouldn't let us play in the Garden any more than we could. I think that's a good recruiting tool for them, I think it's a good move by them. If I was them, I'd put us in Carnesecca every time. Plus I love Carnesecca, I wish Walsh was like Carnesecca. You have 6,000 people right on top of you, it's a great atmosphere. It makes the ticket that much more expensive."
Beyond the obvious NCAA and rivalry implications, Saturday's match up will also help decide first round Big East Tournament seeding. With a loss, Seton Hall is likely to play on the opening day (7th through 10th place), but a win would tie Seton Hall with DePaul for seventh (DePaul has tie-breaker) and just a half-game back of St. John's. This is assuming DePaul loses at Georgetown on Saturday.
Three things to watch:
St. John's in the paint. You already know the narrative by now: Seton Hall's interior defense has been the equivalent of swiss cheese, especially in Big East play. The Pirates have the worst defensive two-point percentage in conference play and only 17 schools have given up a larger percentage of points from two-point field goals this season. Further, St. John's is 57th in the nation in percentage of points within the arc and small forward Sir`Dominic Pointer is a large reason why. Making a strong case for first team all-conference, Pointer (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2 spg) contributes in all facets and brings Khyle Marshall-like ability around the paint. He has reached double figures in 11 straight games while posting double-doubles four times over the same span. Desi Rodriguez and Stephane Manga seem the most apt Pirates ready to defend the 6-foot-6 small forward.
Another battle to watch on the interior is Angel Delgado versus Chris Obekpa. Delgado, a candidate for Big East Rookie of the Year, got the better of Obekpa (6.1 ppg, 7 rpg, 3.2 bpg) in the first meeting by posting a double-double and holding St. John's prolific shot blocker to seven points and five rebounds (Obekpa also registered five blocks). Obekpa won't be 100 percent on Saturday and therefore freshman Amar Alibegovic (1.9 ppg, 1.7 rpg) will likely see extended time off the bench as he has in recent games.
Seton Hall's backcourt situation. With Sterling Gibbs (25 pts, 8 asts in first meeting) suspended and Jaren Sina departed, Seton Hall is suddenly thin in their backcourt just like last season. Isaiah Whitehead will see his first action with the entire load on his shoulders with Khadeen Carrington backing him up and playing two-guard. A lot of people have been wondering why senior guard/wing Haralds Karlis hasn't seen much time since Sina's departure with Kevin Willard preferring slasher Stephane Manga instead, but I'd expect that to change on Saturday. Don't forget that Whitehead will have a huge chip on his shoulder going up against local school St. John's and he will be sure to receive a ton of flak from their fans.
Phil Greene IV. Perhaps one of the more overlooked players in the Big East this season is senior guard Phil Greene IV. Greene (12.8 ppg, 3 rpg, 1.6 apg) has reached double figures in every conference game this campaign except one and is averaging 15.4 ppg over the same stretch after a fairly inconsistent showing in the non-conference. With leading scorer and shooting guard D`Angelo Harrison not 100 percent, Greene has a big stage to build upon his 18-point showing against Georgetown. The senior is 7 of 16 from three over his last two games and is the Red Storm's next biggest threat behind the arc after Harrison of course.
Last 10 meetings (SHU 5-5, 27-33 all-time):
Dec. 31, 2014, SETON HALL 78, St. John's 67, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 13, 2014, St. John's 68, SETON HALL 67, Newark, N.J.
Jan. 23, 2014, St. John's 77, SETON HALL 76, Queens, N.Y.
Jan. 27, 2013, St. John's 71, SETON HALL 67, New York, N.Y.
Feb. 14, 2012, SETON HALL 94, St. John's 64, Newark, N.J.
March 3, 2011, SETON HALL 84, St. John's 70, Newark, N.J.
Feb. 17, 2010, SETON HALL 59, St. John's 50, Queens, N.Y.
Feb. 22, 2009, St. John's 70, SETON HALL 65, Queens, N.Y.
Feb. 5, 2009, SETON HALL 91, St. John's 81, Newark, N.J.
March 1, 2008, St. John's 65, SETON HALL 62, Queens, N.Y.
KenPom says: No. 40 St. John's 73, No. 77 Seton Hall 66 (24%)
Projected St. John's starters:
G - Rysheed Jordan
G - Phil Greene IV
G - D`Angelo Harrison
F - Sir`Dominic Pointer
C - Chris Obekpa
When: Noon, Saturday
Opening line: St. John's -7.5