Saturday, January 20, 2018

JP's 5 Thoughts: Seton Hall out-toughed by No. 11 Xavier in Newark

J.P. Macura's 27 points included tour de force in final minutes of second half as Xavier ended Seton Hall's 13-game home win streak Saturday at Prudential Center. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

NEWARK, NJ -- Seton Hall, for the first 28 minutes or so, played about as well as you could have hoped against the 11th-ranked Xavier Musketeers. After taking lopsided losses on the road to sandwich a home win over a weaker Georgetown team, this was an opportunity to make a statement. But in the second half, the visitors made all the plays, and led by a supernova effort by J.P. Macura, Xavier pulled away for a 73-64 win in front of a sold-out crowd at Prudential Center. It was their first road win over Seton Hall in school history after six unsuccessful attempts, four of which coming as conference opponents.

Here are the five thoughts, beginning with the positives:

1. Fast Times At Rock-mont High
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, Seton Hall actually got off to a great start in this game, hitting six of their first nine shots and taking a 13-5 lead in the first four minutes, forcing Xavier to call timeout. In that span, Desi Rodriguez got whatever he wanted to get offensively, and the Pirates’ defense (more in a second) forced the Musketeers into 2-of-6 shooting and three turnovers. It was exactly what everyone wanted to see after the egg in Omaha this past week.

In the second half? Another quick start (with a 7-0 run after Quentin Goodin scored to open the half for Xavier), fueled again by Rodriguez, who ended up with a team-high 19 points in the contest. For a chronically slow-starting team, this was nice to see.

2. Defense Returned
After the first few minutes, the score was nearly even (25-22 Xavier) the rest of the first half, with the field goal percentages in the thirties for both teams. That’s just what Seton Hall needed to do on the defensive end of the floor, though -- with Xavier ranking as one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the nation (85 points per game, 50 percent shooting as a team along with 38 percent from deep and 79 percent from the free throw line), if the Pirates had a chance in this one, it was going to be because of their defense.

Head coach Kevin Willard started Ish Sanogo in the game for the first time in a while, and he was stuck to All-American Trevon Bluiett like glue (6 points, 2-of-6 shooting in the first half), so kudos to the Pirates. Things were going well in the second half, too. But then two factors helped turn the tide...

3. The Ish Factor
Starting Ismael Sanogo was the absolute right move today by Kevin Willard, and again, for the first 28 minutes, it was paying off. Sanogo was defending at his usual high level, and also contributing on the box score, finishing the game with eight points and seven rebounds along with a couple steals. But it was his foul trouble that changed the game completely. With 12:30 remaining and Seton Hall leading 49-41, he committed his third foul, a reach-in on Bluiett from behind. Over the next four minutes, Xavier went on an 11-2 run led by Bluiett and Macura (more on him in a second), to take a 52-51 lead, their first lead since it was 5-4.

“Ish going out hurt us a lot,” Willard said afterwards. “Ish going out at the time he did really took a little bit out of our energy. Even though Mike (Nzei) did a good job, the way that Ish was playing with his energy and his defensive presence stopped us from getting out on the break.”

Sanogo was subbed back in after the 6-0 point in that run, but the momentum had already shifted. And less than a minute after coming back in, Sanogo had to leave again after injuring his shoulder while committing a loose ball foul, his fourth, at the 9:27 mark with the Pirates up 51-49. From there on out, Xavier beat Seton Hall to every loose ball, making all the hustle plays to come up with a well-earned road victory. Of course, it also helped that they had…

4. The Macura Factor
Boy, was I mightily impressed by J.P. Macura today. He was the subject of constant taunting from the crowd, particularly the student section (which booed every touch he got), and the senior guard responded by taking over the game on both ends of the floor. He ended up with 27 points on a night where Bluiett was more or less controlled by Sanogo, needing just 14 shots from the field to do it with 10 attempts (and eight makes) from the charity stripe. Of his 27, 18 of those points came in the second half, and 14 of those came in the final 12:30 after Sanogo’s fateful third personal foul, including a putback dunk that turned a five-point lead into an insurmountable seven-point cushion with 90 seconds left. He also came up with the defensive play of the game one possession earlier, poking the ball away from Myles Powell, who was busy surveying the play offensively. It was one of several instances throughout the game where Macura out-played the super-sophomore on defense.

“The thing about J.P. is that he’s not going to crawl in his shell when you boo him,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said postgame. “I’d say it’s a 180 from that. He played inspired -- a big part of it is being 0-3 here -- he’s so competitive -- and not wanting to go out a loser at the Prudential Center his senior year."

“I’ve seen a lot of crowds get on him, a lot of student sections,” Mack added. “And I think it bothers him this much,” as he held up his hand in the shape of a zero. Big time players make big time plays, and no matter how much hate he gets, founded or unfounded, Macura showed why he’s a big time player today.

5. Assessing The Macro And Micro
When asked whether this game was a gut-check moment of the season, Willard responded thusly.

“Not at all,” the skipper said. “Every team goes through a rough stretch. Xavier lost two in a row and everyone said it’s the end of that, and Creighton loses by 30 at Xavier and everyone says, 'What’s wrong with them?' You’re going to hit a tough stretch in this conference, especially how good the players are and how well-coached they are. I have total confidence in where we are- we just need to get back to doing some little things.”

One of those things would be to get back to playing a little bit smarter brand basketball. The Pirates are, in the words of Chris Mack, “the toughest team in the league,” and we’ve seen a ton of evidence to support that claim. But there were a few instances tonight where the Pirates just didn’t play as smart as we’ve seen in the past. They committed 18 turnovers leading to 21 Xavier points, and there were a few fouls that were ill-advised as well, particularly the ones above on Sanogo I outlined. Sanogo himself mentioned this as well.

“We had mental lapses,” the senior forward said after the game. “Not boxing out, on certain plays, we let them get going, let J.P. get going and I feel he’s the X-factor of that team. It’s always disappointing when you play your hardest but mess up on the little things and it costs you the game, so my guys are very disappointed, but we’re going to bounce back better.”

That’s not to say the Hall played dumb. There were several plays tonight, particularly when it came to making some extra passes offensively, that showed the Hall’s experience on the court. But it could have been better today against the Musketeers.

Looking at the big picture, Seton Hall sits at 4-3 in the Big East and have lost three of their last four. They have 11 conference games remaining, with home and road games alternating in their next four (at DePaul, vs. Providence, at Villanova, vs. Marquette) before a really hard stretch of four of five away in February (at Georgetown and Xavier, vs. DePaul, at Providence and St. John’s). Basically, no, the sky isn’t falling for Seton Hall, but three of the next four games are very winnable provided the Pirates get back to doing those little things.

That next game at DePaul is going to be a telling one in my opinion. The Blue Demons are not the Blue Demons of past years. They’re more competitive now, and I shouldn’t need to mention Seton Hall’s road struggles against them the last few years. That comes after a bye week for the Pirates, so it’s an opportunity to rest up, recuperate, and right the ship in Chicago next weekend.

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