Let’s give it to the other guys. If you want to talk about a Big East team that could do serious NCAA tournament damage, be a real threat to get to the Final Four … that team was in town Saturday, inside the Wells Fargo Center.
Nope, not Villanova. Not this season, not yet anyway. Plenty tough, but not quite mature enough, not quite strong enough, not quite deep enough. Seton Hall showed a full house all sorts of glimpses why the Pirates are mentioned most often as exactly that team.
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“We didn’t play poorly," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said right off the bat at his media conference. “They just played better."
Then Wright got to the heart of things, after Seton Hall won their first game as the visitors against Villanova since 1994, 70-64.
“They’re a mature team — they’ve got a lot of answers," Wright said.
This was a day to prove it. Myles Powell, if you haven’t heard, is as good as anybody out there, everyone’s all-American candidate, a contender for national player of the year. Villanova did a more than fair job on him, making it a group effort. Did not matter.
“It’s not just Myles Powell," Wright said. “We tried to shut him down a little bit. When you do that, other guys get loose."
Sandro Mamukelashvili was that guy even when Powell was out of the game in foul trouble. That tells you a lot. Someone had to take over. Sandro took over. The 6-foot-11 junior had a tip-in, then he blocked Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s shot, then he hit a three, then he had a three-shot personal possession ... miss, miss, make inside. Star of the game, 17 points, 8 rebounds, all crucial, 12 and 6 in the second half.
“We take every game the same," Powell said later.
Which is smart, that thought, but different than every game being the same. First win at Villanova since 1994 is kind of nuts within a rivalry that’s seen Seton Hall get its share up in Jersey and in Madison Square Garden.
Let’s face it, until Seton Hall won down here, the league still was running through Villanova. The Pirates put a hold on that, moving three games up in the Big East standings. Seton Hall was picked to win the league. Seton Hall is winning the league.
Sure, long way to go, etc. etc. etc.
“I complain about the schedule all the time but I think the schedule really helped us," said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard of early nonconference tests that he called “brutal” and “testing."
The coach praised his star for how he acted when he was on the bench — “the whole time, he was calling plays, telling guys what to do.”
Trying to define Seton Hall’s toughness, Willard said, “They take on the personality of what we need to win."
Of Powell specifically, Willard said, “He comes from Trenton. There ain’t a tougher dude around than this guy."
Wright made a small but telling point, noting how Seton Hall can bring a junior or two off its bench and get a contribution. Having bench veterans — a big deal, when you also have seniors starting.
If Saddiq Bey was the main name on Seton Hall’s scouting report, Bey still got 22 points on 7-for-12 shooting, making 4-of-6 threes. The next name on the report was obvious, too. Collin Gillespie. “Our whole key was to keep him off balance," Willard said.
Gillespie got in a rhythm a couple of times, but his 12 points and four assists weren’t going to be the game-breakers. The game still up for grabs, Villanova had a trio of late shots inside fall off the rim, from Justin Moore, Bey and Robinson-Earl. Can’t do that against the best in the league.
So while Villanova has lost three straight and has more road games than home games left, Seton Hall is 10-1 in the league, with more home games than road games left. Sure, long way to go, etc. etc. etc.
“Try to block out Twitter and Instagram ...and TikTok," Willard said.
“How you know about TikTok?" said Powell, sitting next to him.
“I don’t know," Willard said.
He just knew this one was big enough that he had to get his guys not to read too much into it. Beating Villanova is one thing. Beating Villanova in a full hostile building when that W is the biggest and best way to prove you’re the real deal … You have to give it to those guys. Villanova will see the Pirates again, maybe twice, and they’ll get to feel what it’s like to be a Big East underdog.