Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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For Seton Hall & Rutgers, The Good News Is Somebody’s Gotta Win
It’s Rivalry Week on ESPN.
You know what that means.
Plenty of high-profile basketball programs engaged in high-stakes contests in front of jacked up, body- painted student sections.
Kentucky-Florida and Michigan-Michigan State will both air on ESPN Tuesday night.
The Worldwide Leader will feature Syracuse-UConn and North Carolina-Duke on Wednesday.
And then there’s the game that will take place Tuesday at the Rutgers Athletic Center and will be shown on ESPN2.
Seton Hall and Rutgers aren’t playing to pad their NCAA Tournament résumés or to build their cases for March Madness.
No, both teams are simply hoping to get a win.
Rutgers (12-10, 3-8 Big East) has dropped six straight dating to a Jan. 17 win over USF — nearly a month ago.
Seton Hall (13-11, 2-9), meantime, has lost five in a row dating to their Jan. 23 win against, you guessed it, USF.
“One team is going to be the winner and one team is going to be the loser,” Rutgers coach Mike Rice told SNY.tv with a laugh.
“Hopefully, yeah, someone should win it,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard joked.
Neither team is in danger of making any kind of push into the top half of the Big East standings — and that’s really not any kind of breaking news.
Rutgers hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and hasn’t finished at .500 or better in the Big East since 2002 when they went 8-8.
Seton Hall’s last NCAA appearance was in 2006 and they last finished at .500 in the Big East in 2010 when they ended at 9-9 under former coach Bobby Gonzalez.
Both Rice and Willard are good men and good coaches facing difficult situations, and their own records reflect that.
Since taking over in 2010, Rice is 41-46 in his Rutgers tenure, including a 15-35 mark (.300) in Big East play.
Willard has been at Seton Hall just as long and has posted a record of 47-42, including an 18-32 Big East mark (.360).
“I look at what Tom Crean had to go through at Indiana, I look at what Mick Cronin had to go through at Cincinnati,” Willard said. “I think whenever you’re rebuilding a program and really starting from scratch, which I think both Mike and I have, there is unfortunately no easy and quick fix.
“You’re gonna go through some struggles, you’re gonna go through some good times, you’re gonna go through some bad. The big thing is just to continue to build your program. That’s my message is that unfortunately, unless you’re a number of elite schools there is no easy fix.”
The Catch-22 for the Jersey Big East school has always been the same.
They need better talent to win consistently in the Big East, but you can’t attract better talent until you start to win.
Just as an example, this year alone, 17 New Jersey players were initially nominated for the McDonald’s All-American Game and a not a single one is committed to Rutgers or Seton Hall.
The best players in the state are headed elsewhere. Tyler Ennis and Tyler Roberson are going to Syracuse. Mike Young is headed to Pitt. Jermaine Lawrence committed to Cincinnati. Reggie Cameron will play for Georgetown and Austin Colbert for Illinois.
“What’s it going to take?” Rice asked rhetorically when asked what is needed for the Jersey schools to turn it around.
“Talent, it’s going to take developing a winning mentality because I think both teams are good. I think they’re a very good team.”
Seton Hall at least has the injury excuse. Willard has been playing a seven-man rotation thanks to a slew of injuries. He said forward Brandon Mobley is a “maybe” for the game and swingman Brian Oliver is “probably a not.”
“Once we lost the guys early in the Big East, we’ve been playing seven guys now for 11 games,” Willard said. “A lot of guys are logging minutes that really shouldn’t be logging the minutes that they are logging.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, a mentor to Willard, suggested the other day on the Big East conference call that Seton Hall and Providence will benefit when the Catholic 7 leave the Big East, which could be in 2014, because they will no longer have to compete against the top half of the Big East.
“Not playing Syracuse and Louisville will help obviously, but you start to look at if you’re adding a Creighton and a Xavier and some Butlers and schools like that, those schools have gone to Final Fours more than the other schools have,” Willard said of the potential future makeup of the Catholic 7 league.
“I think what will help us is it will give us an identity as a school again as a basketball conference instead of being a basketball school in a football conference.”
Rice and Rutgers don’t have the injury excuse and they aren’t headed to the Catholic 7.
No, the Scarlet Knights simply have a young and inconsistent team that hasn’t been able to finish. Rice has joked that if basketball games were 35 minutes instead of 40 his team might be 8-3 instead of 3-8.
“We have to allow ourselves to be successful,” he said. “We cant get keep getting in our own way and we’ve got to take advantage of some of the opportunities that present themselves.”
By 2014, Rutgers will be playing in the Big Ten against the Indianas, Michigans, Michigan States, Ohio States and Wisconsins of the world.
The teams that really know what Rivalry Week on ESPN means.
Until then, both Rutgers and Seton Hall are simply looking for a win to get off the schneid.
“Both teams,” Rice said, “are really, really hungry for a win and need one in the worst way.”
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.