Seton Hall’s non-conference schedule to date has been tough, but the Pirates will face their toughest opponent yet on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Fresh off a 20-point victory over New Hampshire on Tuesday night, Seton Hall will be tasked with taking down one of the most talented teams in the country in No. 9 Kentucky. Led by hall of fame coach John Calipari, Kentucky is loaded with a mix of veteran and young talent that can hurt opponents in a variety of ways.
Since dropping its season opener to Duke by 34 points, Kentucky has responded with seven straight double-digit victories. The Wildcats were pushed by the likes of Southern Illinois and VMI at home, but came out victorious nonetheless thanks to a handful of key contributors.
Former five-star recruits Keldon Johnson and PJ Washington have shined in the early going, with Johnson averaging 15 points per game and six rebounds per game, Washington has averaged 12 points per game and eight rebounds. Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis has been an invaluable frontcourt piece for Calipari, as he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds per game and brings a different dynamic to a locker room that features a majority of freshmen and sophomores.
Travis has been to the NCAA Tournament and knows how to win – something Kentucky’s younger players still have to learn how to do. In the past, Calipari has referred to Travis as a “man amongst boys” and the saying has applied both on and off the court. Travis has been dominant down low at times and regardless of how he is playing, he remains a vocal leader.
While Johnson works on the wing and Washington and Travis bang down low, Quade Green, Immanuel Quickley and sharpshooter Tyler Herro combine to form a dynamic backcourt trio. Green is the elder statesman of the group, but Quickley and Herro have quickly emerged as go-to scoring threats off the dribble and behind the three-point line.
With the depth that Kentucky features, it’s safe to say Seton Hall has yet to see a team like John Calipari’s. Kevin Willard put together a challenging non-conference schedule for a reason and these kinds of games will help Seton Hall take the next step to become a complete team by the time Big East play begins. It is also an opportunity for a young Seton Hall team to get acclimated to playing at Madison Square Garden, home of the Big East Tournament.
“I’m excited to get this group into Madison Square Garden,” Willard said. “We’ve played a neutral site game there four or five straight years now and I think it’s a great opportunity for those guys to kind of get a feel for playing in one of the best places to play basketball. It’s a great opportunity for us, but I also think it’s another stepping stone for this team to get better and learn and mature.”
The Pirates still have plenty of work to do on both ends if they want to keep up with Kentucky. In order to knock off the No. 9 team in the country, Seton Hall will need to be on its A-game for 40 minutes.
“I think the biggest thing we have to continue to work on, we’re going to have to defend and rebound at a very high level against them,” Willard said. “Offensively, we have to focus on being more fluid at times. Especially during stretches where we’re playing good defense. We’re not taking advantage of momentum on the break and it’s killing us. We have to be a little more fluid throughout the game.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.