An undermanned No. 15 Seton Hall fell to 0-2 in conference play and 9-3 on the season after dropping a New Year's Day matchup with No. 23 Villanova on Saturday, 73-67. Despite graduate student Bryce Aiken's 22 points, the Wildcats rode the momentum of 21 points from preseason All-American Collin Gillespie and 17 from senior Brandon Slater.
Coming off a loss against No. 22 Providence on Wednesday, the Pirates were still without big men Tyrese Samuel and Ike Obiagu against a big and athletic Villanova roster and only had eight players to pull from off the bench. The two forwards were sorely missed, as Seton Hall was outrebounded 42-28, even allowing 13 offensive rebounds.
"A lot of those offensive rebounds could have been ours if we had that extra size, but it's still our job to box out and try to rebound and try to get together and focus," said graduate student Myles Cale.
This is not to overshadow some solid individual performances from the Pirates. Following Aiken's game-high 22 points was senior Jared Rhoden with 13 of his own along with 6 rebounds. Graduate student Jamir Harris had 12 points on 4-6 three-point shooting and senior Alexis Yetna had 10 points to go along with his 8 rebounds.
As for the Wildcats, Gillespie and Slater carried the brunt of the load, accounting for over half of their team's points, while Jermaine Samuels had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, the only such statline of the day.
The team would have had a lot more than just 73 points had it not been for the Pirates' disruptive defense that gave the Villanova offense fits. In spite of being a program that is known for its refined play, the Wildcats were forced into 17 turnovers thanks to Seton Hall's efforts defensively.
Hall of Fame head coach Jay Wright had high praise for the Pirate defense.
"[Seton Hall] is so physical. We play every other game and we're solid with the ball. You play them, and they just play with a level of physicality that no one else plays with. Especially when you play them [at Prudential Center]," he said. "I just think they're one of the most physical teams in the country."
Even with the slow start after the team's COVID-induced hiatus, the Pirates are still comfortable with where they are early in conference play.
"We're still in a very good spot," Cale said. "I don't want our teammates to think we're in a bad spot because we lost two conference games and we can't make up for them or anything like that. We're still in a very good spot that we put ourselves in and we're going to succeed down the stretch."
Head coach Kevin Willard echoed this sentiment.
"We're still in a good spot. We're still a very good basketball team. Losing two games is not going to change that when you have eight guys. When we get back to full strength we're just going to have to work on getting back into the rhythm that we were in," he said.
Willard and his staff still have a lot to overcome as the season drags on with a limited bench, as they cannot practice with a half-full squad.
"We're not practicing right now. I have eight guys," he said. "We watch film and we walk through with the coaches and the players. We walk through it the best we can. You can't play these guys this many minutes and expect them to practice. That's just not what we're doing."
He went on to say that those in COVID protocols are not expected to be back until after the team's Jan. 4 matchup at Butler.
"I'm going to be extremely patient," Willard said. "I know most people won't be, but I will be."