It was a huge moment for the Seton Hall basketball team, college alumni and the Big East Conference when the Pirates beat fourth-place Michigan on the road Tuesday.
Do you know who else must have been feeling good about anger? The organizers of the Fort Myers Tip-Off.
The four-team tournament suddenly features three teams ranked in the top 30 by Kenpom.com. The Hall opens with Ohio State Monday (6 p.m. Fox Sports 1) and will play in the final or consolation game against Florida or California on Wednesday (6 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
Much has been said about Seton Hall’s aggressive non-conference schedule, Kevin Willard – his side face five major majors ahead of the Championship game, including at least three ranked teams, as well as one meeting on neutral ground with Iona that most big boys would avoid like the plague.
In a phone interview on Thursday, he openly reflected on a philosophical change.
“I don’t know how many more we’re going to be playing,” Willard said. “We are subcontracted until 2024. Next year, it is Orlando, then Charleston, which has been reprogrammed compared to last year. After Charleston I have to sit down and look at my schedule because it’s just too hard.
Why change your mind?
“All of these tournaments were booked before UConn joined the Grand Est,” he said. “Now at 20 games, I think I’m going to be a lot more selective with what I’m doing out of conference because we have Rutgers, the Gavitt Games, the Big 12 Challenge. It’s almost like a built-in tournament and I don’t know if going to another makes sense.
Revelations in Michigan
The biggest thing Willard learned from his Michigan team was his ability to absorb a new defensive plan on the fly, only having a day to prepare after beating Yale.
“Yale was a perimeter focused 3-point shooting team and then you look back at Michigan, which is big and physical with an incredible interior presence,” said Willard. “The focus of the team on the defensive end was what I was most proud of. For a new group that hasn’t been together for a very long time, I think they did a really good job of communicating and working together. Even though we have guys who haven’t played our style, they’re all older guys, and I think that helps a lot.
7-foot-2 graduate Ike Obiagu was perfectly positioned to block and modify shots.
“Incredibly smart young man, so he understands things some guys might struggle with,” Willard said. “Great attitude, never complains, probably too nice at times. He has become a very good player.
Obiagu and his colleagues will take center stage again on Monday against the frontcourt-led state of Ohio.
“I would say they’re even more physical than Michigan, and it’s hard to say.” said Willard.
Here’s a look at the four teams, ranked from tournament favorite to longest distance.
1. Florida (3-0 Kenpom 19): A 16-point victory over Florida State was a revelation, crushing the Seminoles on the offensive glass. The Gators keep their opponents at 53 points per game and a 0.358 field goal percentage. They do not shoot particularly well with the arc (.333) or stripe (.649). Senior forward Colin Castleton (17.3 points per game, 10.3 strokes per game) leads the way. Florida are 2-1 against Seton Hall, with the last meeting being in 2016.
2. Seton Hall (3-0, Kenpom 29): All you need to know about the depth of the Pirates is that their point guard, Bryce Aiken, was their best player. Randolph’s postgrad averages 12.3 points in 20 minutes per game and turns the lights off (0.545 on 3, 0.545 on the field, 0.778 on the line). Defensively, they maintain enemies at 31% of shots on the field and an incredible .133 from the 3 point range (8 for 60).
3. Ohio State (3-1, Kenpom 17): Junior forward EJ Liddell is a beast but he hasn’t received much help. The Buckeyes are missing a notable win and their backcourt struggled in Thursday’s loss to shorthanded Xavier. They are tall and strong on the front line. Does assistant coach Tony Skinn, who came from Seton Hall last spring, have any information that could help? Ohio State is 3-2 against Seton Hall, last meeting in 2003.
4. California (2-2, Kenpom 120): The Golden Bears suffered losses to UC San Diego and UNLV while escaping southern Utah in two overtime. Their opponents shoot a whopping 0.433 at 3 points. They are 1-1 against Seton Hall, with the last meeting taking place in 2016.
Jerry Carino’s predictions
Semi-finals: Seton Hall 70, State of Ohio 64; Florida 79, California 55
Final / consolation: Seton Hall 67, Fla. 63; Ohio State 73, California 58.
Willard Holiday Week
In 11 seasons under Willard, Seton Hall is 17-10 this holiday week, with two titles and a runner-up (there were no events last season). Here is the graph:
Battle 4 Atlantis, 2019 (2-1): Lost to Oregon, defeated Southern Miss and Iowa State.
Wooden Legacy, 2018 (3-0, champions): Beat the Grand Canyon, Hawaii and Miami.
NIT Season Tip-Off, 2017 (1-1): Lost to Rhode Island, defeated Vanderbilt.
Advocare Invitational, 2016 (1-2): lost to Florida, defeated Quinnipiac, lost to Stanford.
Charleston Classic, 2015 (2-1): Lost to Long Beach State, defeated Bradley and Ole Miss.
Paradise Jam, 2014 (3-0, champions): Defeat Nevada, Gardner-Webb and Illinois State.
Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, 2013 (1-1): Loss to Oklahoma, defeats Virginia Tech.
Hall of Fame Tip-Off, 2012 (1-1): Lost to Washington, beat Rhode Island.
Charleston Classic, 2011 (2-1, finalist): Defeat VCU and Saint Joseph’s, lost to Northwestern.
Paradise Jam, 2010 (1-2): Beat Alabama, lost to Xavier and Clemson.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the pace of college basketball since 2003. He is among the Associated Press’s Top 25 Voters. Contact him at [email protected]