It’s been almost two years since the Seton Hall men’s basketball team played in the 2019 Big East Tournament final against Villanova. Off the back of a conference regular season title-winning year in 2020, a Myles Powell-led team was robbed of the opportunity to go a step further and claim the tournament title due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, the Sandro Mamukelashvili-led Seton Hall team will step back into Madison Square Garden on Thursday to make another run at a tournament title. Like its 2019 season, Seton Hall’s hope of making the NCAA Tournament also heavily relies on whether the Pirates can make a run in the Big East Tournament.
Standing in their way, however, is a St. John’s team that just beat Seton Hall in their final regular season game after trailing 18-0 to start the first half and missing newly crowned Big East Freshman of the Year Posh Alexander. That game was the icing on a poorly baked end-of-season cake as it was the Pirates’ fourth loss in succession and third against Big East opponents who were ranked below them in the conference standings.
“We had done a pretty good job up until these last four,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “We’ve gotten into some pretty bad habits. Our free-throw shooting was good most of the year. We’ve missed a few one-on-ones in the first two losses, and we’ve just had some bad turnovers.”
Seton Hall came into that four-game stretch having just won four games straight, including an away win over the University of Connecticut. Those wins and the Pirates’ relatively assured bid to the NCAA Tournament seem lost in the rearview mirror now though as Thursday’s game against St. John’s holds big ramifications over any post-Big East play for the Hall.
The question now is: How does Seton Hall avoid a one-and-done exit from the Big East Tournament against the Redstorm?
Not much has changed
It’s been five days since these teams last played each other, and the only potential difference between these two games is whether Alexander plays for St. John’s. He missed the Redstorm’s last two games against Seton Hall and Providence with a sprained thumb, but Zach Braziller of the New York Post reported that the freshman is making progress toward making a return for Thursday’s game.
Even when Alexander was healthy for the first game between them, the Pirates kept him to just six points and four rebounds while also forcing him to give up three turnovers. Mamukelashvili’s career-high 32-point performance was an example of his ability to single-handedly guide the Pirates to wins in tough games, but the first half of Saturday’s loss to St. John’s showed that Seton Hall can also take its opponents apart with good ball movement.
“It’s great that we just saw them and got to scout them a couple days ago and played them and get to play them again,” Mamukelashvili said. “Both of the teams are familiar with each other’s style of play, and we know where we have to lock in. We know where we have to improve from the previous game.”
Willard’s game plan along with St. John’s missing its first 10 shots of the game sent the Pirates into halftime with a 10-point lead. Four different players scored in their initial 18-0 run to start the game, and all eight of the Hall’s players featured in the first half got on the scoresheet by the end of the first 20 minutes.
Avoid the second-half collapse
Seton Hall has been outscored in the second half of each of its last four games. Its collapse to St. John’s and the last-second basket UConn scored to take a one-point lead into halftime though, epitomizing just how tough the Pirates have found it to close out games. Both games saw the Pirates have substantial leads over their opponents before sloppy defensive mistakes and loose offensive possessions opened the door for both teams to start their comebacks.
The Red Storm team now knows they can overcome almost any lead Seton Hall surmounts throughout Thursday’s game, and its relentless defense is going to require the Pirates to be tentative and direct with every possession.
“What I love about [Mike Anderson’s] teams more than anything else is that they just keep coming at you,” Willard said. “They made some really good plays to start the second half defensively. You got to give them some credit for stopping the ball movement a little bit because I felt like their defense really ratcheted up the ball movement. I thought Rasheem Dunn did a really good job at controlling the tempo of the second half.”
Seton Hall has also struggled to get production from their bench over these last few games. Only Butler’s bench players failed to score more points than Seton Hall’s bench over this recent stretch, and St. John’s scored 33 points from the bench on Saturday while the Pirates had just 16.
Bryce Aiken and Tyrese Samuel have had their moments over the season, but neither is contributing as consistently as necessary to fend off opposition runs. Takal Molson and Jahari Long have also struggled to contribute going forward when they’re on the court, but either Aiken and Samuel or both need to be ready to knock down baskets when they’re on the court to get the Pirates over the line on Thursday.
Composure is key
“In the Big East Tournament, everyone’s 0-0; I look at it that way,” Mamukelashvili said. “Everyone’s fighting for one and one thing only, and that’s to win a Big East championship. Nobody cares what you did before. Every day’s a final, so when [Thursday] starts, we’re going to come out and put 100% out on the court.”
It’s crucial for the Pirates to play with this mentality. The regular season is done and dusted, and they can’t do anything to change their seeding or how results played out over the last two weeks. The Big East Tournament is a clean slate for Seton Hall to rebuild their confidence and show why they deserve to be in Indiana for the NCAA Tournament this month.
There’s no doubt this team has felt pressure to make the NCAA Tournament this season, but moments like these are where the leaders step up. Mamukelashvili, Myles Cale and Shavar Reynolds have all played pivotal roles in a Big East Tournament run, and they need to show that mental solidity when the Red Storm inevitability picks up steam during the game.
The Pirates handled their emotions on Senior Night exceptionally well for the first 19 minutes against UConn, but it got the better of them in that last minute and throughout the second half. They dominated St. John’s for most of the first half, but Seton Hall crumbled when their opponents finally put up a fight. That can’t happen to a team with as many senior figures as the Pirates this late in the season, and that ability to confidently see out games has arguably been the downfall of this team all season.
“I told my kids that I’ve been really proud of the way they’ve battled,” Willard said. “It hasn’t been easy, and it’s been disappointing, but we’re still in a good position. We still control our own fate which is really important around this time of year.”
Seton Hall decides the fate and length of their Big East Tournament campaign on Thursday. Hopefully, the Pirates’ decision is enough to secure a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.