The intimidation starts at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT ("The basketball capital of the world" according to the Pavilion's P.A. announcer) when you walk into the seating bowl. Gampel is a dome and has no center scoreboard so one side of the arena can see the other side clearly. On one side the men's national championship banners are hung up (1999, 2004, 2011, 2014) and on the other side, the women's team has their banners displayed (1995, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). Hanging on the walls is all the NCAA Tournaments for both teams. UConn's success in the postseason is undeniable. It's like looking at all the Yankees pennants at Yankee Stadium. You can hate it but you have to give the devil his due. After UConn's win over Seton Hall before a sellout crowd on Wednesday night, Kevin Willard could do nothing but tip his cap to Danny Hurley and the Huskies team. Going 1-2 against a gauntlet of top Big East teams (Xavier, at Villanova, at UConn) the Pirates showed how tough it is to win on the road in the Big East and how precarious the season could end up if the Pirates don't finish strong in their last five Big East games. At 6-8 in Big East play and now tied with St. John's for 7th place in the conference, the Pirates are at the cusp of having to play the dreaded Wednesday night game in the Big East Tournament. After the game, Willard all but confirmed that point guard Bryce AIken will be out for the rest of the season with concussion symptoms suffered in a loss to Marquette in January.
It never felt like Seton Hall had a chance to win tonight. Even though UConn never really ran away with the game, the Pirates never had a chance to build momentum to put the Huskies back on their heels. The inability of their team leaders Myles Cale and Jared Rhoden to get any kind of rhythm going was going to be problematic against a team as talented as the Huskies. Having Tray Jackson scoring just two points and Alex Yetna scoring three just won't cut the mustard against UConn or any other Big East team (well, maybe Georgetown). The gauntlet that Seton Hall has just gone through with playing Xavier, at Villanova and at UConn consecutively would test any team but that's what the Big East Tournament is. Talking with Jamir Harris after the game, he told me that the crowd and the game tonight were the perfect prep for the upcoming tournament. Tonight exposed the Pirates' shortcomings but it's not all bad news. UConn and Adama Sonogo were dialed in from the beginning and the Huskies all but put the game away at the start of the second half by hitting three consecutive three-pointers. What's encouraging about tonight is Kadray Richmond and Harris were more than serviceable at point guard and had two turnovers between them. Whether Aiken makes a miracle return or not, Richmond and Harris are confident they can handle the position, and their progress is not something to take lightly as there are several winnable games coming up starting with DePaul at home this weekend.
This has been one of the strangest Seton Hall seasons and for this program that's really saying something. This team could bow out on Wednesday night or as John Fanta from Fox Sports and the Big East told us, could win the whole damn thing. What we saw tonight was a good simulation of how they could lose at Madison Square Garden next month with a frenetic atmosphere, no momentum, and Rhoden and Cale not involved in the offense. How do they turn the tables? They have to play up to their capabilities as they did against Xavier and three-quarters of the game against Villanova. One of my favorite adages about the Big East is, "There are no off-nights in the conference." Tonight the Pirates paid the price for having one of those nights. If they expect to play past Thursday in the Big East Tournament then tonight at Gampel wasn't a loss at the basketball capital of the world. It hopefully prepared them for the true big show on the biggest stage at Madison Square Garden.
There's not a single banner hung at Gampel for a regular-season win. It's the postseasons that get immortalized. Both of these teams tonight could meet again for the rubber match in March. As the UConn fans streamed out into the cold Connecticutt night the Pirates got on the bus for the long ride home to New Jersey. On the way back, they'll pass New York City. That's their path back from tonight. That's their path to a banner.