NEWARK - This was a game that Seton Hall absolutely needed to have ahead of a tough four-game stretch that includes Georgetown on Tuesday and road games at Providence, Villanova, and St. John's.
Naturally, you would expect the Hall (15-8, 5-6) to get things going early especially against a Marquette (11-12, 3-8) team coming off a brutal loss to Villanova and battling without leading scorer Matt Carlino (concussion), but that was far from the case. The Steve Wojciechowski-led team raced out to a 17-4 lead after the Hall coughed up early turnovers that gave the Golden Eagles a chance to attack the tin and build up a head of steam.
The early onslaught featured 14 of Marquette's first 19 points coming in the paint, a precursor of the Golden Eagles winning the interior battle 42-22. Still dead-last in the conference in two-point defense, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard is searching for answers.
"Our post defense has been our Achilles heel for the last five games," said Willard. "We're defending the threes but we're giving up layups and that's probably the most disheartening thing about it, it really takes the wind out of your sails. I have to go back and figure that out. I have to figure out how to defend the interior."
While post defense can be fixed on a white board, both of Seton Hall's leaders, Sterling Gibbs and Brandon Mobley, chalked their slow start up to a lack of energy instead of tactical issues.
"It was more just energy, too lackadaisical, too cool," said senior forward Brandon Mobley. "Then our turnovers were leading to easy buckets. In the half court they weren't scoring much, but off transition turnovers they were able to score."
"Probably more energy," agreed Gibbs. 'They came out, they were really energized, then we turned the ball over and they used that to get going."
The early deficit set the home team up for 40 minutes of battling just to stay in the game, something that Marquette handled well. The Golden Eagles answered a 13-4 first half run with an 8-2 counter-punch of their own and continually kept Seton Hall between 6 and 10 points in their rear view mirror for the first 16 minutes of the second half, culminating in a game-high 51-38 lead with just under six minutes to play.
"Very frustrating," said Mobley of Marquette's repeated answers. "Ain't really much you can do until all 13 guys decide they we want to win again, together, as a group, and not play as individuals. Until then, we just have to stay as positive and upbeat as possible."
Mobley's remark about the team not being on the same page won't come as a surprise to anyone and quite frankly is warranted after Seton Hall's third "bad loss" in just over two weeks.
Like the two DePaul losses before today, Seton Hall has not responded well to defeats in which they played poorly. It's now clear that the Pirates' on-court issues are not purely tactical but are rooted in a disrupted chemistry behind the scenes.
"It sucks," said Mobley of the team's mood. "Right now, some guys are just playing to get through the season. Until you have all 13 guys on board like we did at the beginning of the season, it's going to continue to happen."
"The last couple of losses were bad, especially at home ‘cause we have a tough stretch coming up on the road. It's just a matter of all the guys coming together and playing with a purpose, playing for winning. Right now, winning doesn't matter. Everybody is kind of upset about who is taking this shot, who is taking that shot. If we can just find a collective will to want to win again, then we'll be alright, but until then we're going to keep getting these outcomes."
If Seton Hall wants to have any shot at playing in the NCAA tournament this season, something needs to change. One of the more peculiar things about their poor run of form is that they've showed flashes of being cohesive in the first meeting against Marquette and at home against Xavier. According to Mobley, Seton Hall's several week long dance in and around the AP Top 25 has gone to the team's head.
"We got happy. It started off when we got ranked. Once we got ranked, we got happy and then we lost our defensive intensity that we had from the start. Now it's like when we lose, ‘You're not passing the ball, you're taking too many shots, you're not doing this, you're not doing that.' At the beginning, nobody cared who shot the ball, nobody cared who scored, because we were winning and everybody was happy. Now when we lose, you want to point fingers. Until 13 guys come on board and care about winning and not anything else, it's going to continue to happen."
Now sitting squarely on the bubble, at best, and two days to iron out both their on- and off-court issues, Seton Hall has a mountain to climb starting with a tough Georgetown team on Tuesday night.