Wednesday, September 14, 2016

5 Thoughts on Seton Hall's Big East schedule

Khadeen Carrington and Seton Hall enjoy five of their last eight Big East games at Prudential Center, providing valuable home court advantage to reigning conference champions. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Seton Hall thrived off their raucous home crowd en route to a Big East championship last season, drawing positive energy from a student section dressed in lobster suits and a fan base starving to embrace a winner to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.

The Pirates will get a chance to recapture the magic down the stretch of the regular season in their title defense, as the Big East schedule unveiled Tuesday afternoon sees Seton Hall with an advantageous opportunity within reach.

Five of The Hall's final eight games will take place in Newark, including a pivotal February homestand headlined by reigning national champion Villanova's visit to The Rock. Before that, though, the conference season begins with the daunting challenge of contesting the league opener inside CenturyLink Arena in Omaha, where Creighton will host the Pirates on December 28.

To shed further light on the 18-game slate Seton Hall will take on this season, we pay tribute to our colleague and Seton Hall contributor Jason Guerette, offering five thoughts on the ledger of the defending conference champions:

1) Mounds Of Winnable Games Early
Even with the Big East opener in a hostile environment against Creighton, the schedule becomes opportunistic to Seton Hall soon after, starting with a New Year's Day tilt at home against Marquette before welcoming DePaul to the Prudential Center on January 7. Road games against the same Golden Eagles squad ten days after the first encounter between the two teams, as well as a rebuilding Providence team, shape up to be very winnable for Kevin Willard & Co. In fact, a 4-1 start; or even a 5-0 beginning, to league play is certainly not out of the question heading into the first true test of the conference slate. Speaking of that marquee game...

2) The Rematch
Seton Hall was the opening act in last year's Big East Tip-Off Marathon, hosting DePaul at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. With the league and Fox moving the five-game extravaganza to Martin Luther King Day, coupled with the Pirates' championship journey last season, a prime time showdown is the headliner in this year's flagship day of action, coming against Jay Wright and the Wildcats on January 16. Some fans may bristle at the decision to play this game at The Pavilion instead of a larger audience at the Wells Fargo Center, but the fact remains that Seton Hall has perhaps its best shot in years to break what is now a 22-year losing streak inside Villanova's on-campus arena. With four returning starters back, not to mention an experienced group of reserves, the potential for the 70-59 victory on February 26, 1994 to become a distant memory is both real and certainly not improbable. And in case you haven't watched much Big East basketball in recent years, no team has made Villanova work as hard for 40 minutes as Seton Hall.

3) Road Trip, Part II
The Villanova game concludes Seton Hall's first big swing away from Newark, but the Pirates come back home for a pair of deceptively strong games against St. John's (January 22) and Butler (January 25) to end the first calendar month of 2017. February begins with two equally pivotal skirmishes behind enemy lines, starting with Xavier at the Cintas Center on February 1. Winning in Cincinnati is something that this team has already done, (see January 2015, when Isaiah Whitehead came back from a foot injury to score 19 points and Desi Rodriguez had his coming-out party with 16 points on an afternoon where Seton Hall placed five in double figures en route to a 90-82 win over the Musketeers) and Willard's front line should have more of an advantage against a Xavier team who must replace Jalen Reynolds and James Farr down low. Following the clash with Xavier, the Pirates head to our nation's capital for a February 4 tango with Georgetown at high noon inside the Verizon Center. The Hoyas should be much improved from last season's disappointing finish, and John Thompson III has a group of forwards that can attempt to neutralize Delgado. The backcourt is a concern this season in the absence of D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and that should tip the scales in Seton Hall's favor as they attempt to go 2-for-2 before coming back home to face Providence on February 8.

4) Friendly Confines Of MSG?
When the Pirates cross the Lincoln Tunnel on February 11 to renew their rivalry against St. John's, they will have done so having already had a game on the Madison Square Garden floor under their belt, thanks to the December 12 non-conference matchup with Frank Martin's South Carolina Gamecocks. Familiarity with the "World's Most Famous Arena" has proven to make more of a difference than not for some Big East programs over the years, seen notably with Villanova during their 2015 Big East Tournament championship (the Wildcats had competed in the Jimmy V Classic several months prior) and former Big East rival Syracuse, who treated the Garden as a second home court. One could even argue that being acquainted with the home of the Knicks almost cost Seton Hall a shot at the NCAA Tournament last season, as St. John's was able to feed off a large crowd in taking the Pirates to the limit and nearly pulling off the upset before Isaiah Whitehead's heroics in the final minute of regulation, an effort that served as the catalyst for an epic run through February and March.

5) A Three-Course Home-Cooked Meal
Many local writers have already highlighted the eight-day stretch from February 15-22 as the most appetizing piece of the schedule for Seton Hall, and rightfully so. In that span, the Pirates entertain three of their most formidable competitors at the Prudential Center, all of whom are regarded as NCAA Tournament teams. In a coincidental twist of fate, all three are also the same teams that The Hall dispatched on their way to a Big East title last year. Creighton is first in this three-game homestand just as they were in the Big East Tournament, coming to The Rock on February 15. Three days later, a 12:30 tipoff against Villanova in a nationally televised Saturday affair (on THE Fox network, or Channel 5 as we local folk call it) is the order of business, and that game is already being thrown around as a possible Game of the Year in the conference. Xavier, who the Pirates eliminated in the semifinals last March to set up the titanic showdown with Villanova on Championship Saturday, is the last of the three to travel to Newark, doing so on February 22. If Seton Hall can emerge with a winning record in this stretch, they will further cement themselves as one of the two favorites to do the same thing they did last March.

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