<
>

Seton Hall gives Big East another boost

On Wednesday, St. John's arrived in South Orange, New Jersey, ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25. Steve Lavin's team secured that status with an impressive nonconference run, including a neutral-court win against Minnesota, a solid showing in a loss to Gonzaga, a road win at Syracuse, and an 11-1 overall record. The Chris Obekpa-anchored defense is one of the nation's five or six best; it blocks a ton of shots and alters many more, all without fouling.

Seton Hall promptly shredded it.

On Saturday afternoon, Villanova arrived in South Orange ranked No. 6 in the country. Jay Wright's personnel is a coach's dream mix: Talented veterans in established roles. At 13-0, Villanova was one win away from the best start in program history, ranked among the nation's per-possession best on both sides of the ball, thriving on balanced offense and sharp collective defense.

On Saturday, Seton Hall held that team to 61 points in 67 possessions. The 66-61 overtime victory that resulted immediately put the Pirates in a new light for this season, put coach Kevin Willard's rebuilding job among the sport's most impressive recent overhauls, and had the effect of making an entire conference suddenly look better.

No team in college basketball had a better or more important start to the conference season. It isn't even close.

Consider: Seton Hall hasn't started conference play with two straight wins since the year 2000. For most of those 15 seasons, the Pirates have been an afterthought, which goes some way toward explaining why no one paid much attention to the 11-2 start Seton Hall put together in November and December. There was minor reason to take notice: Seton Hall did top George Washington, albeit at home. Its only losses came to Wichita State and better-than-you-think Georgia. Even in cupcakes, the Pirates' efficiency margin hinted at vast improvement over a season ago. But, OK, you can forgive observers for not trusting it. A long-moribund program without a non-cupcake win? The Pirates had much more to prove.

Perception should no longer be a problem. If you're looking for the simplest explanation, point guard Sterling Gibbs is the best place to start. Gibbs, a former transfer from Texas, has been a revelation to date, entering Saturday shooting 53 percent from 3, drawing 5.1 fouls per 100 possessions, with a high assist rate and low turnover marks, and an overall offensive rating of 127.2.

Everything in those numbers is up (often way up) from a season ago, and it was fair to thank the presence of freshman wing Isaiah Whitehead. The five-star prospect and former Lincoln High School star ranked No. 14 overall in the class of 2014, made an immediate impact for Willard, using nearly 30 percent of his team's available possessions. That volume allowed Gibbs to pick his spots more carefully, and a big boost in efficiency followed.

The only problem with that theory, of course, is that for the past three games, Whitehead has been stuck on the sideline in a walking boot nursing a stress fracture he suffered two weeks ago. Gibbs has scored 63 points in those three games. Against St. John's, he poured in 25, including five 3-pointers. On Saturday, Gibbs had one of his less efficient performances of the season, finishing with 20 points on 20 shots -- but he was nonetheless so good that late in the game, Villanova started double-teaming him as soon as he crossed the half-court line, like an overmatched junior high team playing a sixth-grader who grew too fast. When the doubles came, Gibbs shuffled it off to freshman guard Khadeen Carrington, who scored a handful of key buckets (and key free throws) down the stretch.

In the meantime, Villanova shot just 5-of-24 from 3, and JayVaughn Pinkston and Ryan Arcidiacono combined to go 2-of-16 from the field. Maybe that's a bad shooting day. Maybe the Pirates' stingy 3-point defense had something to do with it. Either way, Villanova still had chances to win the game. Last season, the Wildcats made a habit of playing in, and winning, close calls. In a way, that makes Seton Hall's accomplishment even more impressive: Willard's team held on to a massive conference victory against perhaps the most experienced close-game roster in college basketball.

The result, besides a likely top-25 ranking Monday, a major head start on at-large NCAA tournament chances, and skyrocketing enthusiasm in South Orange, is a Big East that suddenly looks much more difficult than it was ever supposed to be. Villanova remains the obvious favorite, but check out the rest of the league: Georgetown looks like a tournament team and should keep getting better; The St. John's defense will make it an imposing matchup throughout; Providence has elite scoring in LaDontae Henton and a talented point guard in Kris Dunn; Butler owns a neutral-court win against North Carolina; Xavier has a top-15 offense.

Before the season, the Big East was considered a one-team league: Villanova going away, then Georgetown. And then, well, whatever. As of this writing, seven of the Big East's 10 teams rank higher than 50th in the adjusted efficiency rankings.

Two conference wins later, it is time to take Gibbs and the Pirates very seriously, to start penciling them in for March, to wonder if they might even get better when Whitehead eventually returns, to ask whether they can replicate these kinds of performances away from home. That those kinds of concerns even exist is a testament to how much better the Pirates are in 2014-15.

Meanwhile, Seton Hall's big wins were also, indirectly, big wins for the Big East. No one will confuse the league for the nation's best. Like its Pirates, though, the Big East is much better than anyone thought. Not bad for one week's work.