By Josh Adams
New York- Where would you rather be than Newark this Saturday night?
Big East Conference play opens this Saturday and those of us that are lucky enough to be in the New Jersey/New York area have ourselves a showdown at the Prudential Center. St. John’s (12-0) is ready to forge the Hudson River and cross over into Jersey and play the Seton Hall Pirates (9-3). The two original Big East members face off for the 100th time in their history and each team has a reason to be optimistic heading into conference season. The Red Storm are one of the few remaining undefeated teams in the nation while the Pirates faced a brutal non-conference slate and have huge victories over Kentucky and Maryland to show for it.
Both teams have an All-American candidate in their backcourt in the Red Storm’s Shamorie Ponds (19.6 ppg.) and the Pirates Myles Powell (23.1 ppg.). The two close friends have been better than advertised this year and both have been spectacular in crunch time. Powell’s 27 points paced the Pirates in their upset of the Terps last weekend while Ponds has been a steady hand all year for the Red Storm. The two pals who played AAU ball together are sure-fire NBA prospects and while there’s been little trash talk from them leading up to Saturday, you can be sure that they both had this game circled on their calendars
The players that have supplemented Powell on the Pirates have been better than expected and have formed a cohesive team in a short period of time. All credit is due to Kevin Willard in what might be his best coaching job of his career in getting a mix of transfers and last year’s bench players to buy into his system. Sacred Heart transfer Quincy McKnight has been a glue guy at point guard for Seton Hall and Sandro Mamukelashvili is steadily developing into a force that will cause a lot of trouble for the rest of the Big East. Myles Cale entered Seton Hall lore in hitting the game-winner over Kentucky and scored a career high in points (23) in the Pirates win over Maryland. What was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Seton Hall after losing four starters has turned into a season where an NCAA Tournament bid is certainly on the table.
The Red Storm finally have all their ducks in a row in what has been a rocky start in Chris Mullin’s tenure as coach of his alma mater. While Ponds has been a monster this season, his supporting cast has given the opposition fits. Marvin Clark II was in NBA Jam on fire mode last Saturday with hitting six three pointers in the first half in the Johnnies victory over Sacred Heart. Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron hit a career high five three pointers last Saturday and has been solid in averaging 15.6 ppg. this season. LJ Figueroa has been a welcome addition to the Red Storm lineup, adding 15.4 ppg. to the already talented starting five.
There’s been some criticism of St. John’s non-conference schedule from the national media of not playing quality teams. While all high D-1 programs schedule mid and low major conference teams in “money” games, the Johnnies have defeated an ACC team (Georgia Tech) and a Pac-12 team (Cal-Berkley) in non-conference tournaments. They also defeated an always tough VCU team thanks to Ponds heroics in hitting a layup in the final seconds against the Rams in Brooklyn. More importantly, the Red Storm avoided both the upset and the injury bug in non-conference play, something that’s hampered them in years past.
If you were holding off on a buying a ticket, it’s too late (or check Stubhub). The game is a sellout and it’s sure to be raucous as Red Storm fans and Seton Hall fans will make it feel like a Big East Tournament game. Both teams want to get this year’s conference play off on the right foot and we’ll all learn something about both teams after the final horn on Saturday. A Top 25 ranking will probably go to the winner as the road to the NCAA Tournament makes a left at Dinosaur BBQ and goes into the Prudential Center on Saturday. We are now here in the teeth of the college basketball schedule and both fan bases have a reason to smile
Prediction: St. John’s 77 Seton Hall 73
PHOTO: Shamorie Ponds/AP