January. A new year. A fresh start. For the Seton Hall basketball program under Kevin Willard, January has become a struggle.
Coming off an embarrassing loss to St. John's on-campus on Monday, Seton Hall fans hoped the team would turn it around with being back at their usual confines at the Prudential Center on Wednesday against Marquette. As the Pirates got off to a sluggish start, the crowd started murmuring. As the Golden Eagles lead increased, there was silence in the cavernous arena. Finally, as the Marquette lead ballooned to 20, the booing started raining down from the crowd. Frustration had finally boiled over among the Seton Hall faithful. The Golden Eagles led the game from start to finish and swept the Pirates with a 73-63 win. What was a promising start with a slew of big non-conference wins and a Top 25 ranking has turned for the worse with a 3-6 Big East conference record while the team losing 4 out of their last 5 games. Tonight the Pirates allowed Marquette's Justin Lewis to score a career-high 33 points as the Golden Eagles have won their last 7 games. Two teams that are going in completely different directions as Willard and the Pirates continue to struggle in the first month of the year while Marquette has vaulted into the Top 25 with seven straight wins.
This year is not an apparition when it comes to Seton Hall struggling to win in January. Our friend Joey Jarzynka did a deep dive in the Pirates media guide tonight and came up with this stat.
There are several theories that we can address on why a better than average team that Seton Hall usually has continues to be very average in the first month of the year. It's obviously more than just the players. Obviously, in the last few years, there's been a challenge with the pandemic. Jared Rhoden addressed that issue tonight as a reason why the team has struggled as of late. "Every since the Covid pause, it's been hard for us to get into a rhythm", said Rhoden after the game on Wednesday. This could certainly be the case this season. Seton Hall was shorthanded to begin the conference season and could only suit up 8 players for their first few Big East games. Because they had to reschedule games they missed during the pause, the Pirates have played a frenetic schedule and have played five games in the last fourteen days.
There's also the theory that Willard schedules a too tough non-conference slate. He has made no bones about wanting to challenge his teams early in order to prepare them for the slog that is conference play. Take a look at this year. Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, and Rutgers are no pushovers and the Pirates went 3-1 against them. Last year they had Iona, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Louisville in their non-conference schedule. While it's admirable to not play a full slate of lower-tier Division 1 schools while some of these games are unavoidable due to the Gavitt Games and holiday tournaments, I wonder sometimes if these games do more harm than good. Travel and tough games take a toll on a team and I think it's a double-edged sword if Seton Hall wins or loses these games against top-tier opponents. If you go 3-1 this year against that gauntlet of teams it builds confidence but I don't know if it adequately prepares the team for the style of Big East play that's coming. An early Top 25 ranking increases expectations which could lead to things spiraling when an unexpected loss happens. On the other hand, losing a few games early could cause players to question if the team is heading in the right direction heading into conference play. I don't think Willard has ever hit that sweet spot in which he could get a few nice non-conference wins while also allowing his team to work through their systems against a buy-game opponent.
As this January ends and Seton Hall looks to turn it around in February there's a reason for optimism. The players haven't given up. Willard vowed tonight to work harder in getting his offense retooled and setting his plays up to get his players in better spots on the floor for open looks. Bryce Aiken will be back and that will give the team an immediate boost from the point guard position. They could turn this season around in a hurry with a few wins strung together.
Championships aren't won in January. There are still 10 games left in conference play before the Big East Tournament. The time is now for the Pirates to shake off these doldrums of the past two weeks and get back to their November/December form. When this team is clicking, the potential to do some damage in postseason tournaments is very much possible. There are few teams that can match the height or the depth on the bench that Seton Hall has. A few wins and the Prudential Center can go back to a place where booing is directed at the visiting team. Look, there's nothing wrong with a dedicated fan base getting frustrated in January. It's the apathy that comes with not making an NCAA Tournament that should be the worry. Judging by the track record of the Pirates under Kevin Willard in the past 6 years, there's reason to believe that won't be the outcome on Selection Sunday.