REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
One year ago, under new coaches, Rutgers was a rising program while Seton Hall was a train wreck. New Pirate Head Coach Louis Orr inherited a chemistry experiment gone awry. Former Head Coach Tommy Amaker's handling of his prized 2001 recruiting class divided the locker room and created chaos on the court. With only one year of head coaching experience behind him, Orr attempted to steer a ship that would have beguiled far more seasoned captains. The Pirate ship, with a mutinous crew, aground and only a total meltdown of the West Virginia program enabled Seton Hall to escape the Big East basement. Heading into the 2002-2003 season, Orr still had a major reclamation project on his hands. With only Jr PG Andre Barrett to provide veteran leadership, Orr had to restore order while simultaneously developing a young team. A tall order.
Meanwhile, on the Banks, Gary Waters presided over a near-Cinderella story. Waters replaced the disgraced Kevin Bannon and immediately lost his best returning player when SG Todd Billet transferred to Virginia. But Waters found JUCO transfer SG Jerome Coleman to replace Billet's scoring. And Waters reinvigorated a program that had grown accustomed to blowing tight games. Four wins over Top 25 teams positioned Rutgers squarely on the NCAA bubble before a late season collapse tarnished the dream season. Waters signed some promising players late in the year to salvage what had been a distrastrous recruiting season. With a deep, athletic, experienced team more suited to his frenetic system of pressure defense and transition offense, Waters was poised to make another run at the NCAA tournament.
The rivalry between Seton Hall and Rutgers fans was surpisingly muted early this season. Undoubtedly a reflection of the low expectations of Pirate fans for their season. And possibly a demonstration in humility by Rutgers fans who have eaten quite a bit of humble pie in recent years. Especially at the hands of their neighbors to the north. Most reasonable fans thought that a Rutgers sweep was a distinct possibility.
Then the season started. Seton Hall struggled early with a challenging non-conference schedule. Seton Hall staggered into the Big East season at 5-4 and then immediately lost its first three league games. The Pirates were a fragile lot. Rutgers struggled too in losing games it was in position to win. An early loss at North Carolina, where the Scarlet Knights blew an 11-point lead with 8 minutes remaining, was a premonition of things to come. Rutgers blew two criticical home games against Virginia and LaSalle to finish a disappointing 8-4 in non-conference play. Rutgers opened its Big East season with two more losses after late collapses against Pittsburgh at home and at Notre Dame. However, Rutgers was clearly competitive and, while perhaps lacking the killer instinct to reach the NCAAs, was a lock to reach the NIT again.
But in mid-January, the fortunes of both teams turned. Seton Hall rattled off 7 wins in its next 8 league games. Road wins at Georgetown and at West Virginia, combined with home wins against Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, suddenly showed that Seton Hall was a team with which to be reckoned. The Hall could beat the bottom feeders on the road and could beat anybody at home. Meanwhile, Rutgers added lob-sided losses against Villanova, at Georgetown, and at West Virginia to extend the conference losing streak to 5 games. Tough wins over Syracuse, Boston College, and Georgetown at the RAC were offset by two more collapses - at Seton Hall and against West Viriginia. The West Virignia loss apparently broke the morale of the team as it went through the motions in embarrassing blowout defeats at Connecticut and at Pittsburgh.
So, Seton Hall -- surprisingly ascendant -- returns to the RAC to face a demoralized Rutgers team that is playing out the string. What has happened?
First, Louis Orr has done a tremendous job with a young team. The Pirates are playing with heart they lacked the past two seasons. The Hall is also playing tough and smart, two other notable previoulsy missing ingredients. PG Andre Barrett has been brilliant as the team leader. Youngsters So SG John Allen and Fr C Kelly Whitney have given Orr reliable production to complement Barrett. Upperclassmen Greg Morton and Marcus Toney-El have brought defense and toughness. Orr has mended the internal wounds and has brought along his young talent. The Pirates are now the team on the verge of an NCAA big.
Second, Gary Waters has done a terrible job with an experienced team. Waters made Sr SG Jerome Coleman the leader of the team and wrote Jerome a blank check -- shoot as much as you want. Coleman has shot Rutgers out of one game after another with no accountability to his coach or his teammates. The selfishness that was primarily associated with Coleman and his buddy Jr PG Mike Sherrod has now infected their teamates. So PG Juel Wiggan, who used to look to drive and dish, now forces up bad shots off of dribble penetration. So SG Ricky Shields now chucks 25+ foot bombs with regularity. Nobody feeds the low post. Only Jr PF Herve Lamizana is playing unselfishly. But he can't win games by himself. Especially on a bum ankle.
What can Waters do? I've already postured that Waters needs to start preparing his future team for next season. Cut back the minutes of Sherrod, Coleman, and Sr C Kareem Wright and give the extra playing time to Fr SG Calvin Wooten and Fr PF Adrian Hill. Waters has done so as Wooten and Hill have played 75 minutes between them in the past two games. Wooten was the leading scorer against Pittsburgh with 21 points.
Waters needs to cut deeper. Coleman has not had has head in the games recently. Yet, Waters refuses to bench him. Coleman has gone on record with his desire to break the 1,000-point career scoring barrier. It will require over 20 ppg in the remaining four games to do so. Coleman is also on record with his intention to be more aggressive, others be damned. This from a player whose shot selection has been questionable all season and downright horrible recently. Ricky Shields hasn't been playing with any passion for about a month now. Cause.....effect.
Gary Waters needs to make the reclamation of Ricky Shields his primary focus for the next two weeks. Shields will be one of the two key pieces to this team next season. Waters needs to get Shields to buy back into the season. Waters can best do that by being true to that system and stop allowing one player to be above that system. Bench Jerome Coleman. Let him play as a reserve. And if he isn't willing to play within a team framework, banish him to the bench.
Oh, by the way, the game tonight? Seton Hall will smoke the Scarlet Knights in transition and beat Rutgers on the offensive glass. Like they did at the Meadwolands. Only they won't spot Rutgers the first 14 minutes of the game. This one has a Seton Hall blowout written all over it.