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.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It was only a small sample size.
Two games in five days.
But No. 8 UConn — the defending NCAA champs — got a taste of what New Jersey hoops could be during their Big East sojourn this week.
In a nightmare span of five says, the Huskies lost to both Seton Hall and Rutgers, falling to the Scarlet Knights, 67-60, on Saturday night at a rockin’ RAC five nights after being throttled by the Pirates, 75-63, at The Rock.
UConn is synonymous with big time basketball, while Seton Hall and Rutgers are perennial Big East-bottom feeders.
Yet after Seton Hall won at Providence, 66-57, earlier Saturday, the Pirates figure to be ranked in the Top 25 Monday for the first time since January 2001.
“Seton Hall’s one of the better teams I think in the league and will be a very good [NCAA] Tournament team,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who made his return after a three-game, NCAA-mandated suspension. “They were a better team than us and they beat us. But it’s how they beat us that is disappointing.”
Rutgers, meantime, sandwiched two wins against Top 10 opponents — they beat then-No. 10 Florida, 85-83 in double OT Dec. 29 — around a two-point loss at USF and a 19-point beatdown at home by West Virginia.
“Rutgers is a hungry, young basketball team,” Calhoun said. “They played with a sense of purpose. I can tell you right now, they’ll lose some more and they’ll win some more.
“But they had a sense of purpose of just trying to win this game, not worried about whatever they are, or their rings, or any other foolishness.”
For years, New Jersey has featured several of the top high school programs in the nation, programs that year in and year out compete for mythical national titles: St. Anthony, St. Patrick and St. Benedict’s.
Yet for years, the Garden State’s Big East schools have struggled.
Seton Hall last appeared in the NCAAs in 2006, Rutgers in 1991.
Now, under the bright, energetic leadership of Kevin Willard and Mike Rice, respectively, both teams appear to be surging upward.
Rice is still at a loss to explain how his team managed to be 2-0 against Top 10 teams and 7-7 against everybody else, but for now he’ll take it, knowing that his talented young team has a bigger upside.
“These guys have that in them a little bit and I’ll run it out of them,” Rice said of his team’s penchant for playing bigger in the big games. “They’ve got to play hard no matter what the circumstance is. There is no question that these guys like the big moment and they’re not afraid of the big moment.”
Rutgers freshman point guard Myles Mack, who won a mythical national title at St. Anthony last season, knows that the Garden State is full of talent…and he came to Rutgers precisely because he thought he could make a difference.
So did his teammate Eli Carter, a Jersey native who also played at St. Anthony before prepping a year at Brewster (N.H.) Academy.
Together, the freshmen guards combined for 33 points, five rebounds , four assists and a manageable four turnovers.
At Seton Hall, the Pirates are being led by senior big man Herb Pope — who outplayed UConn’s future lottery pick Andre Drummond on Tuesday — and a pair of former Paterson Catholic stars in Jordan Theodore and Fuquan Edwin.
Edwin put up a career-high 24 points and five steals in the Providence win, and Theodore continued to play well with 14 points, nine assists and two turns.
Carter senses the excitement now that both Jersey teams are playing well.
“It’s definitely a good thing that we’re putting Jersey on the map,” said Carter, who scored a team-high 19 points despite foul trouble and had 31 in the Florida win.
Mack believes that if both Seton Hall and Rutgers can keep playing like this, it will attract the best players in the Garden State, and elsewhere, to join the programs.
“The recruiting would be much easier for the coaches and we could get in-town kids and we could get better out of town kids,” Mack said. “That would be the great aspect of it.”
It was only a small sample size, but this week Rutgers and Seton Hall showed what Jersey hoops can be.
And when UConn leaves the Garden State they will notice that the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
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.