The Rutgers and Seton Hall men’s basketball teams face off at the Prudential Center Friday, Dec. 23 at 6:30 p.m. in the most anticipated matchup between the New Jersey rivals in quite some time.
Fresh off a Big East Tournament title and their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade, the Pirates look to be at least as good as last year’s team despite star guard Isaiah Whitehead’s move to the NBA. They’ve handed No. 16 South Carolina its only loss and defeated Cal and Hawaii en route to a blazing 9-2 start.
On the other end come the Scarlet Knights, who enter The Rock with a record of 11-1. Even considering the level of competition they’ve faced — Rutgers ranks second-to-last in strength of schedule, according to analytics website KenPom.com — the improvement the Scarlett Knights have shown in the first couple of months has been noticeable. Playing under first-year head coach Steve Pikiell, Rutgers surpassed last season’s win total eight games into the year and has outscored opponents by an average margin of victory of 13.5 points per game while ranking top in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage in the process.
While the action on the court in front of a sell-out crowd will surely be heated, the discussion before it between Rutgers’ and Seton Hall’s student newspapers is as civil as can be. To preview the matchup, The Daily Targum’s sports editor, Brian Fonseca, and The Setonian’s Editor-in-Chief, Gary Phillips, exchanged a Q&A.
Gary and The Setonian will answer first, so without further ado, we present 5-on-5:
Brian Fonseca: Hey Gary, let’s get started. First up, how has Seton Hall adapted to playing without Isaiah Whitehead after him moving on to the NBA? How much has the addition of Myles Powell helped that transition?
Gary Phillips: The transition has been pretty smooth so far. Naturally, a team is going to take a step back when it loses an NBA caliber player, but Powell’s (12 PPG, 25-65 3PT) ability to hit from long range has definitely helped make up for Whitehead’s absence in the scoring column. Meanwhile, Wake Forest transfer Madison Jones has been the one to take over as floor general, leading the team with 3.3 APG.
Really, though, this team’s success has stemmed from the four remaining juniors – Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo – stepping up and doing a little more all over the court with their former classmate gone.
BF: The biggest area of improvement Rutgers has seen this season has been down low in the post, with much of the success owed to junior forward Deshawn Freeman and senior graduate transfer center C.J. Gettys. The Knights lead the nation in offensive rebounding and typically dominate teams on the glass, but they haven’t had much of a challenge either considering they have the second easiest strength of schedule in the country. How do you think Seton Hall’s bigs will fare against Rutgers on the glass/in the paint?
GP: Seton Hall’s frontcourt may not be the biggest, but boy is it relentless. Angel Delgado, averaging a double-double, has taken huge strides offensively, both in the paint and from mid-range. His passing has improved as well, which makes it hard to double team him.
Alongside him in the starting lineup is Ismael Sanogo. Thin but lanky, the forward is a defensive wiz who can lock down just about any player at any position. Then there’s Mike Nzei. He’s undersized and raw in terms of talent, but he plays with a motor and always seems to be in the right place at the right time for a board or bucket. Long story short, Rutgers should expect a tough time under the rim on Friday.
BF: To bounce off that question, while Gettys has looked solid against teams Rutgers is simply more talented than, he struggled to play against Miami. The Hurricanes played high-tempo and forced him to continuously run up and down the court, which he’s nowhere close to being able to do in the shape he’s in. First, do you anticipate a similar strategy from the Pirates? Second, how do you think Angel Delgado will match up with him?
GP: The Pirates love to run and gun, so I can’t imagine Gettys will have too much fun in this one.
I admittedly haven’t watched too much Rutgers basketball, but from the way you phrase it, it sounds like the seven-footer may not be the most agile guy. He may have a few inches and about 40 pounds on Delgado, but the Pirate is athletic, tenacious on the glass and can hit from outside the paint on occasion. A bigger matchup has rarely been an issue for Delgado before – I don’t see it being one Friday.
BF: While Rutgers has looked good inside, they’ve looked anything but from the perimeter. Though they’ve been slowly coming along and improving, the Knights are shooting just a smidge under 30 percent from three despite smart shot selection. Opponents are averaging 34 percent from downtown against them but it really should be higher considering all the open looks Rutgers gives up on D. Is this a weakness you think Seton Hall will be able to exploit?
GP: In one word, yes. For Myles Powell, it just takes one to fall, and Seton Hall usually tries to make that happen early on. But the sharpshooter is not the only Pirate with range, as Khadeen Carrington has hit 50 percent (25-50) of his three-pointers this season. Depending on the day, Desi Rodriguez also likes to test his shot, though he does so with far less success (6-27). If Rutgers is letting these guys chuck, though, expect them to take RU up on the offer.
BF: Jevon Thomas will make his debut for Seton Hall against Rutgers after sitting out a year and a half. What’s his story and what can he bring to the table in his first game?
GP: Jevon Thomas hasn’t played since March 11, 2015. He had to sit out a year after transferring from Kansas State, but then he was allegedly involved in an altercation in which he choked a graduate student refereeing an intramural basketball game on campus. The incident earned Thomas a semester-long suspension this fall.
Now the guard is able to return, though – his teammates are pretty excited about it. Thomas has been advertised as a speedy and pesky defender, so look for that. Chances are Kevin Willard will ease him into the rotation on Friday, but as he gets acclimated Thomas is sure to take some minutes away from Madison Jones.
BF: Okay, I’ve got a bonus question for you… Any final predictions?
GP: I don’t have a particular score in mind, but I do think a lot of Rutgers fans will leave The Rock on Friday realizing that New Jersey is a blue state. The Pirates are better, plain and simple. I expect a double-digit win, though not by as wide a margin as in years past.
Alright Brian, now it’s your turn.
BF: Let’s do it!
GP: You recently wrote about the “Ghost Gang” at Rutgers. Could you explain what that is for unfamiliar Seton Hall fans?
BF: Ghost Gang is the nickname for Rutgers’ starting frontcourt, consisting of senior center C.J. Gettys and junior forward Deshawn Freeman. Gettys arrived here this summer as a graduate transfer from UNC-Wilmington and he quickly became close to Freeman, who is originally from Rocky Mount, N.C. The story goes that Gettys would say things he heard down in Wilmington and while most of the team had no clue what he was saying, Freeman picked it right up and then they just clicked from there.
They’re both transfers and because they only had seven appearances combined for Rutgers heading into the season — Freeman played seven games last year before a knee injury forced him to redshirt — they’re ghosts in the sense they sneak up on you.
Given how well they’ve been playing so far — Freeman has six double-doubles in 12 games and leads the team in rebounds while Gettys provides leadership along with his solid shifts on the court — I’m not sure how often they’ll be surprising teams anymore.
GP: There’s been a lot of talk about the Scarlet Knights’ improvement this season, as shown by their record. At the same time, Rutgers hasn’t played much of anybody, let alone recorded any notable wins. Record aside, is this a team you think Seton Hall should be worried about?
BF: There is no reason to sugar coat this — the Pirates are, in nearly every sense, the better team. They have more experience, more chemistry, more talent, most recent success and, despite playing a more grueling schedule than Rutgers, nearly as good a record. Based on what Angel Delgado told reporters after their win over Delaware, it seems like they’re well aware of these facts.
That being said, I think Seton Hall would make a big mistake underestimating the Knights and taking them lightly. Rutgers is hungry to prove that its 11-1 record is legit and a win over an in-state rival that’s crushed it each of the past three years would most certainly do the trick.
It will certainly be an emotional game and the Knights will come out of the gate playing the usual brand of aggressive defense they’ve been under Steve Pikiell. While it’s very plausible to think that the Pirates may find themselves up double-digits at some point, it won’t be as safe a lead as it would’ve been a year ago.
Rutgers was down by as much as 21 against Miami, and while they did end up suffering their only loss that day, the Knights never conceded the game and managed to trim the deficit down to 12. A year ago, that loss is by at least 30 points. That all goes back to Pikiell, who is as stoic as they come. His ability to stay calm in the huddle is something the team credits to the Knights not panicking in games.
If Seton Hall approaches Rutgers like it is — a less talented team looking to pull a big upset away from home — and avoids getting comfortable in the lead, this game should end the way the last three between the Garden State contests has ended.
GP: Which member of the Knights is flying under the radar right now, someone Seton Hall fans may not be too worried about?
BF: I’m going to do a cop-out and pick a tandem — junior guards Mike Williams and Nigel Johnson.
It seemed the Brooklyn native and the Kansas State transfer were going to be the ones disputing the starting 2-guard spot entering the season, but they were both beat out by freshman Issa Thiam. Nonetheless, the pair has quietly lead the Knights off the bench. Despite just two starts between them through 12 games, Johnson and Williams rank second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Expect the duo to play heavy minutes and have a big say in how Friday’s game turns out.
GP: As you brought up before, Angel Delgado recently said that the Pirates would beat Rutgers even if they were the No. 1 team in the country. On Seton Hall’s side, you get the feeling that this is an intense rivalry. Do you get that same vibe on the Rutgers side?
BF: Based on their words in media availability, no. As I said before, Steve Pikiell is as stoic as any coach in the country, so he has his players approaching this game like any other. To the dismay of Rutgers fans still traumatized by the Kyle Flood era of the football program, Pikiell’s mantra this season is trying to go “1-0” every game.
But at its core, this is an intense rivalry and I expect the players to have a little extra juice going into this one. I expect it to get chippy with a couple of stoppages in play to sort out disagreements. In front of a sold-out crowd at Prudential Center, I expect emotions to be the highest they’ve been in the rivalry in a long, long time.
GP: Surely the fans will play into that emotion, too. The Rock is going to be sold out Friday. Any idea what the visiting crowd will look like? Is Rutgers doing anything special to get students to the game?
BF: Rutgers is not doing anything special off the court to get fans to the game that I’m aware of. It’s the last day of finals, so whatever students are still on campus are finishing up their semester.
The Knights are doing all of their marketing on the court with their best start to a season since the best year in program history.
GP: That’s all good stuff, Brian. Since you asked me, how about we end with your final predictions?
BF: Well, Rutgers has improved massively from last season. The defense, the shot selection, the discipline, the hunger and desire they show on the glass — it’s all worlds better than what it was under Eddie Jordan the last three years. By proxy, I expect this one to be much closer than last year’s 29-point loss or the 27-point loss before that.
However, for all they’ve improved on, the Knights remain a less talented team than the Pirates. With hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year, I expect Kevin Willard to have his team motivated and prepared for what will be a feisty, hungry Rutgers team.
I think Seton Hall wins this game — I sincerely can’t imagine a scenario where the Knights pull out what would be their biggest upset since beating No. 2 Wisconsin two years ago — but I think Rutgers keeps it within single digits. Pirates by 7.
Gary Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips. Brian Fonseca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @briannnnf.