The Rutgers men’s basketball team travels to the Prudential Center Friday night (6:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1) to face Seton Hall to fill in the next chapter of a state rivalry with a long history stacked to the brim with close games, wild finishes and often times strange circumstances.
The Pirates (9-2) have taken each of the past three games, including the first two editions of the Garden State Hardwood Classic by an average margin of victory of 28 points. But the massive margin of victory is an anomaly, not the norm, in the series — 18 of the last 22 meetings have been decided by six points or less, or in five cases, overtime.
The Scarlet Knights (11-1) are off to an impressive start but have yet to convince skeptic’s that their record is as a result of their solid play and not the weakness of their opposition. A win over the Pirates, the defending Big East Tournament champions looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, would legitimize their early season success and serve as a solid book end to non-conference play.
There is a lot at stake, including postseason hopes and statewide bragging rights. I’m going to try to dissect the toughest test the Knights and first-year head coach Steve Pikiell will have faced yet.
Seton Hall is in the midst of its best stretch as a program since its glory days in the 1990’s. The Pirates are 9-2, picking up some big wins in non-conference play, including handing No. 16 South Carolina its only loss up until this week when the Gamecocks were upset by their own bitter in-state rivals Clemson.
The Pirates responded to losing star sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead — who bypassed his last two years of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft, where he was drafted 42nd overall by his hometown Brooklyn Nets — and graduate transfer forward Derrick Gordon with another talented transfer in Madison Jones, who leads the team in assists, and four-star freshman forward Myles Powell.
The rookie sharp-shooter is putting up a 39 percent clip from downtown, pinning him at second in the team in the category behind junior guard Khadeen Carrington, who is shooting at an unconscious 50 percent clip from three.
Carrington is part of the core of juniors the Hall leans on this season as much as it did the last, when it returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over two decades after winning the Big East Tournament for the third time in school history.
The trio of Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez have picked up the slack after losing their fourth member in Whiteside by forming the top three sources of scoring for the Pirates, with Carrington spearheading the three-headed monster with 19.2 points per game.
Rutgers is off to its best start since its greatest ever season in 1975-76, when it suffered its first setback in the Final Four after an undefeated regular season.
The Scarlet Knights are 11-1, and while some of that is due to them facing the second easiest schedule in the country according to analytics website KenPom.com’s strength of schedule calculations, the fact is they are playing much better basketball than they were a year ago.
They lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom, owning a rebounding margin of +13.4 on the season.
Aside from its only loss at Miami, a win at Depaul and a last-second win over Hartford, the Knights have defeated every opponent they’ve faced by double-digits, including a 42-point win over Central Connecticut State.
The addition of graduate transfer C.J. Gettys — who adds leadership and regularly injects emotion into the team along with his usual contributions of 9 points and 5.3 rebounds a night — the eligibility of Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson (12.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists per game off the bench), the recovery of junior guard Deshawn Freeman (team-leading 12.7 points, 9.3 rebounds per game, six double-doubles) and the reinvigoration of junior guard Mike Williams (11.8 points on 37 percent shooting from three) have the Knights looking completely different from the team that lost by 29 points to the Pirates at the Rutgers Athletic Center last year.
Seton Hall’s Delgado, a center, and Rodriguez, a wing, are the folds of the Knights starting frontcourt of junior Deshawn Freeman and Gettys, though with more impressive numbers.
Freeman leads the Knights in both scoring and rebounds, posting up six double-doubles in 12 games this season with an average of 12.7 points and 9.3 boards a night, while Gettys contributes a solid 9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Their contributions are a big factor in Rutgers leading the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to analytics website KenPom.com.
But compare that to Rodriguez, who is second in scoring and rebounding for the Pirates with 14.5 points and 6.1 boards per game, and Delgado, who is third on the team in scoring with 14.3 points per game and first in rebounding with 11.4 boards, combine it with their lethal shooting ability from deep and it’s easy to see why the home team is favored so heavily in this game.
“They rebound the ball really well at a high level, both offensively and defensively and I think we have to match their intensity on the boards like we have all year,” Gettys said. “I think we win the battle of the boards, that gives us an advantage and it’s going to help us win the game.”
Delgado is the most talented big man Gettys has faced at this point in the season. He’s long, athletic and can run the floor to go along with the run-and-gun style Kevin Willard’s Pirates like to play from time-to-time. For as much energy as Gettys provides the team, the truth is he’s not in good enough shape to keep up with the dynamic Dominican forward.
Expect junior college transfer Candido Sa to see extended action on the floor to guard Delgado. The primary reason being because he’s living up to the reputation of being a block machine he gained in his time at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, leading the Knights in blocks a year after leading all JuCo players in the country in the category. A less positive reason is the fact Gettys is likely to get into foul trouble early while trying to stop Delgado.
And even if Gettys, Freeman and Sa manage to contain Delgado on the inside, he can pick his poison and kick it out to any of the quality shooters the Hall will have out on the perimeter. Going by the difficulties Rutgers has had in rotating on defense this season, the Pirates will have plenty of open looks from deep.
Seton Hall lost some depth in its front court over the past week, with sharp-shooting sophomore Veer Singh announcing his decision to transfer last week and classmate Myles Carter being dismissed from the team Thursday morning, but what it has is enough to overpower Rutgers.
Advantage: Seton Hall
Rutgers isn’t completely helpless in the matchup on paper, though. What they lack in the battle of the front court, the Knights make up for in their balanced backcourt.
Expected to do everything from score to facilitate to force turnovers last season, sophomore guard Corey Sanders has thrived in a more reserved role this season. The Lakeland, Florida, native still flexes his ability to attack the rack and score, ranking fourth in the team with 10.2 points per game, but without being forced to carry that load, he’s grown in several areas.
Sanders leads the team in assists (4 apg) and steals (1.8 spg) but where he’s improved the most is in his defense, an area Pikiell and his coaching staff have emphasized heavily.
He’s found the space for the improvement thanks to two junior guards in Nigel Johnson and Mike Williams.
The latter is having a resurgence in his third year on the Banks, slowly beginning to fill the role of sharp-shooter he came with when he arrived as a recruit from Brooklyn. Thriving in his role as the sixth man, Williams leads the team in three-point shooting percentage with a 37 percent clip and ranks third in scoring with 11.8 points per night.
Playing in his first year of eligibility for the Knights after sitting out last season following his transfer to Piscataway from Kansas State, Johnson is also embracing a role as one of the first players off the bench for Pikiell. The Ashburn, Virginia, native led the team in scoring for some stretches of the season, now sitting second behind Freeman with 12.4 per game.
His ability to slow the game down, his versatility in playing both on and off the ball and his tenacious defense all give Pikiell another solid option to employ in the backcourt.
On the other end, Carrington has proved his worth in his three years in West Orange. But, as the Asbury Park Press’s Jerry Carino said in his preview, the Hall lack a true point guard, though Madison Jones isn’t a slouch. Kansas State transfer Jevon Thomas is set to make his debut after serving his suspension for his alleged involvement in an altercation in which he choked a graduate student refereeing an intramural basketball game on campus, but without having played a minute of meaningful basketball in a year and a half, what he can do in an official game is yet to be seen.
Two of Rutgers top three scorers come off the bench. Steve Pikiell regularly goes deep into his bench, with eight Knights averaging double-digit minutes on the season. Freshman forward Eugene Omayuri, the ninth most used Knight, is one Pikiell trusts and has praised multiple times for his defense this season.
As I mentioned above, Seton Hall has lost depth in its front court. The Pirates have seven players who average at least 20 minutes per game. The pair leaving the program ranked eighth and ninth. Of those who remain, just one averages more than five minutes per game.
“I feel like we have one of the best benches in the country,” Williams said. “Even though they’re young, they play hard.”
The Prudential Center is expecting a sell-out crowd of 10,900 fans, just 2,000 of which expected to be clad in Scarlet. Seton Hall is undefeated there this season and lost just three times there last season.
The Knights only loss of the season was on the road at Miami in the toughest environment they played in front of this season.
“Friday night is going to be a tough environment,” Williams said.
Advantage: Seton Hall
On paper, most signs point towards a fourth straight win for Seton Hall in the biggest rivalry game in New Jersey college basketball.
Whether that comes to fruition on the court is a whole other story.
For now, all we could do is predict, far from an exact science.
But based on the recent past and the evidence laid out in this post, barring an improbably perfect game from Rutgers, this game is Seton Hall’s to lose.
Brian Fonseca is the sports editor of the Daily Targum. To reach him, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @briannnnf for updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team.