This is around the time every year when the most serious basketball teams declare themselves, when the grind of a long season begins to yield to the encroaching light of the NCAA Tournament. It’s one thing to be playing well in early December, and one thing to be playing well in late January.
But when March is this close, when the biggest games and the biggest stages begin to beckon, that’s when you’d like to have an extra gear. And one thing we are starting to find out about the Seton Hall Pirates is they have that extra gear. And maybe, just maybe, a little bit more than that.
“They have a lot of size and a lot of talent on that basketball team,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson marveled at the end of Seton Hall’s methodical 81-65 destruction of his team Sunday afternoon at Prudential Center. “There were a few times, we’d cut the lead to single digits and they’d make a big play. That’s what good teams do.”
We’ve known for months that Seton Hall is good. You don’t build a one-game cushion alone atop the Big East standings this late in a season this competitive in a raffle. You earn that, especially this year. But what we’re seeing now is that the Pirates, across the next few weeks, absolutely have the goods to earn a battlefield promotion.
To “very good,” for starters.
Well, start here: Myles Powell, their best player, is also about as unselfish a big-time player as you’ll find in college basketball. He’s had knee issues this year. He had a concussion. His shot right now is fickle and inconsistent. And yet, in many ways, he played as complete a game Sunday as the sport allows, even after starting 1-for-7 from the floor: 18 points, five rebounds, four assists.
“If we’re winning, then nothing else matters,” Powell said. “If we’re winning, I’m fine, my teammates are fine, we’re all fine. That’s the bottom line around here. And what’s best is, I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet. I think you’ll see the best of us in March, I really do.”
A big reason that’s possible is because junior forward Sandro Mamukelashvili has returned from a seven-week sabbatical due to a broken wrist and is performing at a level that ought to make all future Seton Hall opponents quake at the 1-2 punch awaiting them. It was his quick-shot with less than a second to play that delivered Seton Hall past Butler on Wednesday, and Sunday he fed the Johnnies a steady diet of his diverse, dynamic game: 16 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and a steady swagger that’s contagious.
“It just feels so good to be back and playing with the guys again,” he said.
It helps that the Pirates also have Kevin Willard, who has quietly become one of the Big East’s top coaches, who on Sunday became the first New Jersey Division I coach to post five-straight 20-win seasons, an awfully impressive accomplishment when you start to ponder names like Honey Russell and Pete Carril, P.J. Carlesimo and Tom Young.
It was Willard who drew up Mamukelashvili’s game winner, Willard who recruited this eclectic roster, Willard who has built Seton Hall into the kind of perennial contender it seemed nobody would be able to craft here. The pairing of this coach and these players just might be the trick in figuring out a two-weekend stay in the NCAAs. At least.
“We understand what our mentality this time of year has to be,” Willard said.
They have a week off and then a three-game slog to end the regular season of at 19th-ranked Marquette (for Markus Howard’s senior night); home to No. 12 and revenge-minded Villanova (for Powell’s senior night) and at No. 5 Creighton in a game that may well decide the regular-season title. Then, it’s the Garden, for the Big East Tournament.
And then …
“We feel we can accomplish just about anything,” Powell said. “The way we’re playing, we absolutely feel that way.”
And they absolutely should.