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.
Kentucky up next for Seton Hall as difficult December continues
By ADAM ZAGORIANEW YORK — Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard likes to make sure his team plays at least one game at Madison Square Garden before the Big East Tournament in March.
This year, especially, Willard wants his young team to get familiar with the Garden environment so it won’t be completely new to them come March.
This year, their first game at the Garden just happens to come against No. 9 Kentucky (7-1) on Saturday at noon.
“I always like to get a neutral-site game in the Garden before the Big East Tournament,” Willard told me Wednesday at the Learfield Athletics Forum in Manhattan, where he was supporting Mike Nzei.
“It’s such a great privilege playing in the Garden, but it’s also the first time you play in there could be a little daunting so obviously playing an unbelievable team like Kentucky is a huge challenge but it’s also a great opportunity for our guys to get in the Garden, play against a great team and see where we’re at.”
Seton Hall is 8-3 at the Garden since 2016, including a Big East Tournament championship win over Villanova in 2016.
Willard, who on Tuesday won his 200th career game, has never faced Kentucky coach John Calipari. Kentucky and Seton Hall last met at the Great Alaska Shootout in 1988.
“What does he have, 9,000?” Willard joked of Calipari, who is actually coming up on 700 career wins.
Willard stacked his December non-conference schedule with games against Louisville (a loss on Saturday), Kentucky, at Maryland and Rutgers before Big East play begins against St. John’s Dec. 29.
“It’s big because they’re quite different than what we’ve played against so far,” Willard said of Kentucky. “They’re longer, more athletic. Their pace is much quicker than the teams we’ve been playing, so what I like is about the game is, it’s going to be like playing Creighton. It’s a long, athletic team that gets up and down. It’s a good test for us.”
One long, athletic player on Kentucky who Seton Hall might not see much of is Nick Richards, who helped the Patrick School win the New Jersey Tournament of Champions title in 2017. The 6-foot-11 Richards is averaging just 4.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 12 minutes per game.
“Like Nick, Nick, the reason you’re our fourth big is how you practiced,” Calipari said this week on his show. “Now have a great week of practice and then you’ve move into those three and one of those others guys isn’t playing as much.”
Calipari said he told Richards, “We need you to play but I can’t do it for you. And I want to play three bigs, which means you need to take minutes from one of those other three.”
Kentucky will practice Friday at Baruch College in Manhattan, so Richards will have one last opportunity to showcase himself before the game.
As for Seton Hall, one big who will definitely play is Nzei, who is averaging 11.3 points and leads the Big East in field goal percentage. He’s looking forward to the challenge of facing Kentucky.
“For my team now, every game for us is a new opportunity,” Nzei said. “We’re going into the Kentucky game looking at it as an opportunity for us because it will build our resume going forward. So that game is an opportunity for us to be on the winning side.”
And what would a win over the No. 9 Wildcats mean?
“For us it would mean a lot for a young team like us,” Nzei said. “It would boost our confidence. Also it would show how far we’ve come.”
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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.