Photo courtesy of Seton Hall Athletics.
By David Cordova
In the last couple of years, the Garden State has risen to even greater heights in basketball. On the high school scene, there are now four nationally-ranked programs, such as Hudson Catholic, The Patrick School, St. Benedict’s Prep and Roselle Catholic.
But on the college side, there are two programs that have made their presence felt on the national scene. One is a mid-major team that knocked off some big teams the last couple of years and the other is a high-major program that is now ranked No. 23 in the country in the Associated Poll.
The Seton Hall Pirates, who are members of the Big East Conference, have made it to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons and won the Big East Tournament in 2016. And there’s the Monmouth Hawks, who were a Cinderella team a couple of seasons ago, after beating programs such as UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Georgetown. In that span, they have gone 55-15 and were regular season champions in the MAAC the last two years in a row.
On Sunday, both teams squared off at the Prudential Center in an early season, non-conference matchup. But when all was said and done, the Pirates edged out the Hawks, 75-65.
“It was a very big deal to come up here and play against Kevin’s team and play against Seton Hall,” said Monmouth head coach King Rice in a press-conference after the game. “Their team is really, really good. I try to explain to my kids, you can play against a high-major program. We have big bodies too. When you get to the ranked teams, the top teams in the country, it’s a different enemy, and this team [Seton Hall] is solid, their guards are good, their bigs are solid.”
Monmouth, the mid-major did great in the second half after being down sixteen at halftime, and did whatever they had to do to keep the game close. What kept them in the game was the fact that they shot better than Seton Hall from three-point range (43% to 28%) and from the free throw line (84% to 50%).
“I just feel like the second half, we kind of got a little stagnant,” said Seton Hall head coach, Kevin Willard, “We got a little dribble-happy. It sometimes happens when you have a 16-18 point lead.”
But one of the things that the Pirates did well against the Hawks was force them into 21 turnovers in comparison to their thirteen, and also out-rebound them by the score of 40-32.
But what Coach Willard in his team was their unselfishness. “This group, they like to pass the basketball. They’re not caught up in scoring, they’re not caught up in who gets what shots. They kind of know the offense goes through everybody, when we play in a good pace and pop in the ball, nobody’s thinking about shooting. We celebrate the hockey assist as much as the assist.”
Willard also felt that even though they did well in the game, there was still room for improvement. “I like being 2-0, but I think we have a lot of room for improvement.”
In this game, Monmouth showed that they were not threatened by Seton Hall, even though they were the bigger school in the same state. Whenever a smaller school plays a marquee name, it gets the smaller school more motivation for multiple reasons, one of them being the fact that they have less pressure on them and they are playing the role of the hunter, while the bigger school is the hunted.
In the case of the bigger school, their job is to stave off the smaller school and win convincingly, but when the smaller school is just as talented and is not an easy team to beat, it is not something to take lightly.
“To play the local teams, it’s weird. When I was at Iona and we played St. John’s, we played Seton Hall, it’s like a Super Bowl game, it’s a different feeling on this side because losing one of those games in my position, is a killer for you and I hate these games,” says Coach Willard about playing smaller schools in the state of New Jersey. “It’s just trying to get them [his team] to understand the mentality from the Monmouth side and the St. Peter’s side, because I know how good their players are, I know how good a job King does, I know how John Dunne does. The coaches in this state are really, really good coaches, just keeping your guys on edge is really one of the hardest things about playing the local teams.”
Being that they were the underdogs, Coach Rice felt very optimistic about his team and felt they played very hard, “I am more than happy with my team, we fought, we played hard, we got lumped up by a bigger group and we came back. I told my group, ‘Don’t let anybody write or say, they didn’t keep playing.’ I didn’t think we were going to get the win or anything down the stretch, but they did bring their main guys back in to calm us down and finish the game. But I’m very proud of my team, and we’re going to continue to play hard and I think we’ll be a better group later in the year.”
But he also added a great point about playing against the high-major programs. “You can play teams that are high-majors, the ones that have the numbers next to their names, those numbers are there for a reason. And these kids believe in it, they’re talking Final Four. I think it’s a very positive thing when you have veterans and they’re putting that type of heat on themselves,” says Coach Rice.
Later this fall, Monmouth will play some major games in their non-conference schedule. One on December 2nd in Hartford, CT against UConn and in New York City on December 9th against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden. The game on Sunday prepared them for the battles that they are yet to face. But then again, they are now battle-tested and do not fear the opponents that are up against them.
As for Seton Hall, they have now advanced to the No. 22 ranking in the AP poll, and now face Indiana tomorrow in the Dave Gavitt Tip-Off Games at the Prudential Center. Then there will be other heavyweight matchups coming their way: Texas Tech on November 30th at Madison Square Garden as part of the Under Armour Reunion event, December 3rd on the road against Louisville, December 9th against VCU at home and another road game against Rutgers as part of the Garden State Hardwood Classic on December 16th.
Sunday’s game proved that one thing is for certain. No matter what level these teams are, the college programs from the Garden State are always ready for battle and will fight to win.