by Josh Adams
Close doesn’t cut it in the Big East. After an 0-3 stretch in which Seton Hall lost to their rival Villanova twice and gave up a 16 point lead to Creighton. “It’s never a lost week. Every loss is a learning experience”, said Shavar Reynolds after Saturday’s loss to Villanova as Seton Hall drops to 9-8 on the year and two upcoming road games at Providence and at UConn coming in the first week of February. The Pirates are now staring down the barrel of having to win the bulk of their remaining games to get an NCAA bid. Let’s take a look at how they got here and what needs to happen in order to get the Pirate ship sailing back towards Indianapolis in March.
Quad 1 Losses Add Up: This week was optimal for Seton Hall to build up their NCAA resume. With back to back gut-punch losses to Villanova & Creighton the team looked shell-shocked in the first half as Villanova built up a double digit lead quickly. The #3 Wildcats executed their gameplan flawlessly in the first half. The Pirates were able to bounce back in the second half and trim the Villanova lead to single digits but the Wildcats ended the game hitting 7 out of their last 7 shots to close out the game. “Our permiter defense went from horrific (against Creighton) to terrible (today)”, said Kevin Willard after today’s loss. The failure to close out on the three point shot has been the Pirates Achilles heel in their losses and Villanova made them pay today with timely shots and the ability to get to the free throw line on head fakes and drawing fouls. Villanova went 20-23 from the free throw line and 10-22 from the three point arc as Colin Gillespie set a career high in assists Saturday with 11. The Wildcats are a Final Four caliber team that are tremendously disciplined and well coached. They simply went out and executed their gameplan today while Seton Hall was stuck in the mud on offense in the first half.
Mamukelashvili Needs to Be the Center of the Offense: Sandro Mamukelashvili has turned into an enigma of a player. As a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve, his frustrations are evident in these past three losses. As much as Willard has defended him and his play, there’s clearly a disconnect in what Mamukelashvili’s role is in the offense. When Seton Hall plays well, Mamukelashvili is the focal point of the offense. He has the freakish ability to be able to handle the ball and spin into the lane for an easy layup or dish out to a wide open shooter as the defense collapses around him. To many times in the last three games, Mamukelashvili has been a bystander on offense as the Pirates possessions turn into one on one matchups as the shot clock winds down. Willard said that Creighton “took Sandro away” on offense last Wednesday. It shouldn’t be that easy with the caliber of player Mamukelashvili is. How many teams took Kobe Bryant away? LeBron James away? Until you can show me another 6’10” player in college basketball that can handle the ball, pass or drive to the hoop and score like Mamukelashivili can, his talent should trump any scheme that gets drawn up on him. As his college career is in it’s final two months he and Willard need to figure out where he is physically and mentally as a player. I have no doubt that he has the skills to succeed at the next level but the NBA is a different animal and Mamukelashvili has two months to get his swagger back and get his draft stock up and get the Pirates back into the NCAA Tournament.
Play to the Strengths You Have: What Seton Hall has in spades is height. So much so that on several Villanova possessions they had all five players start their half-court offense beyond the three point line. Ike Obiagu is a presence in the paint and is cold-blooded when it comes to blocking shots. This should be an insurance policy for Seton Hall’s guards to overplay opponents on the perimeter. The Pirates have been killed by the three point shot in the last two games. If the guards and the forwards can avoid jumping during pump fakes they should hands in the faces of their opponents at the three point line. If they get past them, Obiagu is waiting for them under the basket. All it takes it a few rejected shots and I’ve seen opposing players hesitate on easy layups. There should be a committment to aggresive defense on the perimeter, getting every 50/50 ball and keeping Obiagu lurking around the paint as a deterrent for any layup. On offense, there needs to be an extra pass on every possession. Willard’s offense is predicated on a “weave” where Mamukelashvili should be able to get the ball after a rotation with the guards, square up and drive into the lane. If there’s an opening for a layup, take it. Nine times out of ten his defender will get help and leave Cale open in the corner. Kick it out to him for a three or an extra pass to Rhoden or Reynolds for a short jumper. Seton Hall doesn’t use the lob as much as they should either. At 7’2″ have Rhoden or Mamukelashvili drive into the lane and lob it to Obiagu for an easy dunk. They do this twice a game and get away from it.
The Gauntlet is Over, The Push to March Begins: Willard called this past month “the gauntlet” as Seton Hall played Creighton and Villanova twice in Janaury and went 0-4 against the two best teams in the Big East. ” We just went through the gauntlet. We didn’t survive it very well, but we just went through it and we had two chances to win games.” was Willard’s assessment of it. There was a similar “gauntlet” earlier this season as Seton Hall lost a close game to Louisville, followed by a win at home against Iona and then two losses against Rhode Island and Oregon. The team was at 1-3 but showed up against a underrated Penn State team and won with their backs against the wall in State College and turned the season around. We are at that infliction point again with the 2020-21 Pirates as they travel up to Providence on Wednesday. The Friars are coming off of a loss to Georgetown on Saturday as they have an identical record (9-8) as the Pirates. Both teams need to get wins under their belt to solidify an NCAA Tournament berth and Wednesday’s game is an opportunity for both to get a crucial win while the loser sits at .500. There’s no room for error anymore for the Pirates. It’s time to see what this team is made of.
Myself and Providence reporter Jake Zimmer will appear on the Daly Dose of Hoops Podcast to discuss Wednesday’s Providence-Seton Hall matchup. Check twitter @Dalydoseofhoops for airtime.