Challenges increased for hyped-up Seton Hall MBB as non-conference slate becomes official

Date: July 2, 2014

 by John Fanta, Assistant Sports Director

With one of the most highly-touted recruiting classes coming into the program, fifth-year head coach Kevin Willard is not offering cupcakes on the schedule for the Seton Hall men's basketball program. Along with playing four 2013-14 NCAA Tournament teams, the Pirates will partake in Paradise Jam at the Virgin Islands.

The Hall will tip off the season with a Mercer team that is much younger than a season ago, one that saw Bob Hoffman's Bears knocked off Duke in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament. An all-senior starting five is gone that was led by Langston Hall (14.7 points per game). The Bears' experience was shown in their unselfishness, as they were 10th in assists per game with 16.4. Rising junior guard Ike Nwamu looks to raise the bar from scoring just over eight points per game to reaching double-figures. This team will be younger, but it gives the Pirates a taste of a program that has had recent success in a place that SHU wants to get to – the Big Dance.

After their home opener on Nov. 16, the Pirates will begin play at the University of the Virgin Islands on Nov. 21 to take on Nevada in the first round of the Paradise Jam. Senior guard Michael Perez, who is the lone returning scorer that was in double-figures last season with 11.5 points per game, will anchor the Wolfpack's backcourt. Nevada does have a senior down low in AJ West (6.8 ppg last season), but they are looking to find options in the post with the loss of Cole Huff, who transferred to Creighton. Following the contest against the Wolfpack, The Hall will either face Clemson or Gardner Webb. The Tigers won 23 games last season and reached the NIT semifinals. Point guard Rod Hall returns for his senior season, which sets up an intriguing match-up with Sterling Gibbs. Clemson won 10 ACC contests for just the fourth time in school history. While K.J. McDaniels, who was the leading scorer and rebounder last season for the Tigers, is a Philadelphia 76er, the Tigers do return Landry Nnoko as a rising junior center (6.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg in 2013-14). It will be tough for Clemson to find a leader like McDaniels. It's up to Hall to be an orchestrator. Four years ago, the Pirates took Clemson to the limit before the Tigers pulled out an overtime thriller. The third and final game for the blue and white will come against either LSU, Old Dominion, Illinois State, or Weber State.

Following the trip, the Pirates come back to the comforts of their own home with the longest stretch of games at the Prudential Center in the non-conference slate. Reigning Atlantic 10 champions George Washington come calling first. The Colonials went 24-9 last season in a league that had the second-most bids in The Big Dance with six. GW only will have one senior, as a young team will carry its question marks. But, this is a good addition for the Pirates because the A-10 has gained much respect and GW has question marks of their own. Three days later, The Hall hosts Mount St. Mary's. The Mountaineers won the Northeast Conference Tournament last season, earning their second NCAA Tournament bid since 2007, but do not return their two leading scorers from 2013-14, Rashad Whack and Julian Norfleet.

The home stand, which comes right before a road trip to national power Wichita State, will give The Hall an opportunity to figure things out with a good portion of the non-conference slate left. And, they won't be tuning up for the Shockers because the stretch possesses no push-over games. That will especially be evident in the December 6 meeting against Rutgers inside the Prudential Center. The Scarlet Knights will be undergoing a culture change later in the season as Eddie Jordan's program enters the powerhouse Big Ten, but Rutgers does return a good veteran corps. After losing 77-71 in Piscataway to the blue and white last season, revenge will be on their minds. It will especially be a true test for Brandon Mobley, Angel Delgado, and the rest of the men in the post for SHU. 6-foot-9 Kadeem Jack averaged 14.3 points and 6.8 boards per game and will give the Pirates a defensive task, to say the least. Not only does Willard's team have to worry about defending Jack, but finding scoring options in the post will be tough with nothing like 2014 All-Big East Tournament Team Eugene Teague back for another season. The game has its hype as is with it being the battle for New Jersey, but there will be even more of a special emphasis with the game falling on a December 6, a Saturday evening at The Rock.

Looking at those match-ups, the Pirates' slate is solid, but there's nothing glaring for them to make a big-time statement. That chance will come on December 9 in Kansas. Sports Illustrated has Wichita State slated at No. 12 in an early poll for the upcoming year, and why shouldn't they? Under Gregg Marshall, the Shockers have made it the NCAA Tournament in three straight years, including a Final Four berth in 2012-13. After going 35-0 up until their Round of 32 game against eventual national runner-up Kentucky, the Shockers fell on a missed triple by VanVleet, ending a remarkable season. To be the best, one must beat the best, but it's more than safe to say that the Shockers received a tough draw with Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, and Michigan all with them in the Midwest Region.

While All American Cleanthony Early (16.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg in 2013-14) graduated, Tekele Cotton joins Baker and Vanvleet in a strong backcourt. Darius Carter, a good defender at forward, will be back for his senior season after averaging nearly eight points a game. The absence of Early certainly is a help for SHU.

Following a meeting with local foe St. Peter's, the Pirates will take on a South Florida team that has much to be excited about for 2015-16, but is looking for a build-up year as new coach and former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua takes over as head coach. The Seton Hall backcourt should have no issue with a program that combined to shoot just over 25 percent from beyond the arc last season.Roddy Peters transferred in from Maryland and will sit out a year before playing point guard. The potential for the backcourt has not been this bright in recent times. The Pirates will then visit Georgia just four days before Christmas. The match-up with the Bulldogs is another example of Willard going after a team with some good backcourt pieces to continue to get Whitehead and company a reasonable learning experience. Rising junior guard Charles Mann returns after scoring nearly 14 per game last season for a team that reached the second round of the NIT. Head coach Mark Fox has been extended through the 2017-18 season and will have a veteran-laden team that will compete in the top four of the SEC. The annual contest at Walsh Gym will feature the Pirates and Maine on Saturday, December 27, in South Orange.

3 Takeaways from the Schedule:

1.The Pirates need to raise the bar with the top-tier recruiting class coming in. The only way to give those kids something in out-of-conference play is to schedule tougher. While Wichita State is certainly tough, the meeting gives the Pirates a chance to play in a big-time situation early. There will be growing pains, but Duke, Kentucky, and the other powerhouses are nowhere near perfect with their recruits. The hope is for Seton Hall to have a clean year with no legal issues.

2.Exposure is good for any program. The good ones know how to get it consistently. By just playing at Wichita State and in Paradise Jam, the program will be taking a nice hit of curiosity from people. Brad Stephens made Butler cool. As a result, it took a nice hit. While they're trying to get it back, putting the program on the map can pay big dividends.

3.This schedule is perfectly done by Willard, in the grand scheme of things. The Pirates youth is not going to get many shots to ease the growing pains in game action. Whip cream and a cherry and top won't be happening at the Prudential Center. While Maine is a simple meeting and Saint Peter's and Mount St. Mary's are very manageable, nine of those 12 games are against teams that have been staples to making the NCAA Tournament.

Have a question or comment on this column? Email or tweet @John_Fanta and @WSOUSports.

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