Observations: Win vs. Wichita State could do wonders for Seton Hall

Seton Hall can make a statement Saturday against Wichita State.

Several Big East teams have signature wins this season and the Pirates do not.

But that can change after Saturday.

Seton Hall’s home game against Wichita State in Newark gives Kevin Willard’s team the same type of forum it had when it beat Villanova early in Big East play last season.

People from the periphery may look at the Shockers’ 5-4 record and shake their head, but those who follow the sport understand that this team has battled injuries to start the season and earned two quality wins last week over both UNLV and Utah.

Wichita State has played in the last four NCAA Tournaments, had a 35-1 win season in 2014, and advanced to both the 2013 Final Four and 2015 Sweet 16.

Gregg Marshall’s squad also has college basketball’s toughest back court in Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker along with a freshman in Markis McDuffie who’s a New Jersey native that opted to play for the Shockers instead of staying close to home.

This game is huge for recruiting.

It’s huge for the Pirates’ perception heading into the Big East.

And it’s huge for Willard.

Now in his sixth year in South Orange with zero NCAA Tournament appearances on his resume, this is the type of game Willard needs to win to show that his team is going to have a legitimate chance moving forward in a Big East Conference that looks as good as it’s been since forming two and a half years ago.

Seton Hall has quietly gotten off to a solid 8-2 start, but this team also began last season 12-2 before going 4-13 down the stretch and finishing 16-15.

Is this team different?

Beating Wichita State on Saturday at home would be an emphatic way to say yes.

We’ll know a lot more about South Carolina after the next two weeks

Frank Martin has led the Gamecocks to a 9-0 start and they’re definitely a better basketball team than they’ve been during Martin’s first three seasons on Columbia.

How much better?

We still don’t truly know.

South Carolina has earned quality wins over teams like Tulsa and Hofstra out of the gate, but neither of those squads are locks to play in the NCAA Tournament. This team has also yet to play a true road game.

That will change starting Saturday.

The Gamecocks are at Clemson on Friday and then will face St. John’s at Mohegan Sun on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network) before returning home to host Memphis on Jan. 2.

Neither of those three teams are locks for the NCAA Tournament either, but there will be value in seeing South Carolina play a few games away from home and then return to Columbia, South Carolina to take on a team with legitimate talent like Memphis.

Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M appear to have separated themselves as the top three teams in the SEC.

Could the Gamecocks be the fourth?

We may have a better gauge after the next few weeks.

UCLA-North Carolina is the game of the weekend

Two elite brands and two teams that have a chance to win their respective leagues will take center stage at the Barclays Center in the first game of Saturday’s annual CBS Sports Classic (1 p.m. ET, CBS and CBSSports.com).

The Tar Heels are college basketball’s version of an all-you-can-eat-buffet because they have a little bit of a everything.

The Bruins are of an “a la carte” team since they’re not quite as proven as North Carolina in terms of overall team depth, but still possess several talented players that have been mightily impressive to start this season.

The key thing to watch in this game?

How Tony Parker asserts himself on the interior against the size and length of North Carolina’s massive front line.

The Georgia native is having a senior season to remember, but having a big game against the Tar Heels’ front court trio of Brice Johnson, Joel James, and Isaiah Hicks will require a tremendous effort.

Parker is currently averaging 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting 59.8 percent from the field and for UCLA to have a chance to pull the upset on Saturday it needs him to again be a force on the block.

Parker was the key in last Saturday’s win at Gonzaga in the second half and he’ll again likely determine if Steve Alford’s team can pick up another quality victory away from Pauley Pavilion.

This Just In

Wichita State’s Anton Grady (spinal concussion) practiced lightly yesterday, Gregg Marshall told CBS Sports. Grady could possibly play Saturday at Seton Hall.

Colorado’s Xavier Johnson (achilles) will meet with doctors this weekend to decide if he will redshirt this season, Tad Boyle told CBS Sports.

Isaiah Whitehead (USATSI)
Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead leads the Pirates with 15.5 points per game. (USATSI)

This and That

Kentucky’s front court focal point is freshman Skal Labissiere, but more people need to talk about the production the Wildcats are getting from their other front court guys. Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee are averaging a combined 18.1 points and 14.3 rebounds for John Calipari’s team, who next faces Ohio State on Saturday in the Barclays Center as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

Before people start linking Tony Bennett with the potential vacancy at Wisconsin they should remember the following: Bennett has a three million dollar buyout at Virginia if he leaves before March 2018. He also is currently at a program that has won back-to-back ACC regular season titles. The Cavaliers also have recruited better than they ever have under Bennett and have two Top-50 prospects — Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy — signed for next year along with Memphis transfer Austin Nichols. Translation: it would make zero sense to leave Virginia considering the level that things are at right now in Charlottesville.

SMU’s Jordan Tolbert is playing like somebody who knows their college career is coming to an end in a few months. The fifth-year senior has grabbed 64 rebounds in his last five games and is averaging 13.0 points and 10.0 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 forward is starting to give the Ponies one of the nation’s most underrated front courts with he and Markus Kennedy.

Miami’s Angel Rodriguez is up in all major offensive statistical categories — field goal percentage (44. percent), free throw percentage (82.4 percent), and 3-point field goal percentage (37.2 percent) — from last season. This is the X-Factor for the Hurricanes moving forward into the ACC. Rodriguez is currently averaging 12.9 points, 4.0 assists, and 2.3 rebounds for Miami (8-1), who next hosts Charleston on Saturday.

LSU’s game against Wake Forest on Dec. 29 will be a good gauge of where this team is at prior to SEC play. This will be the first time the Tigers play a legitimate opponent with both Keith Hornsby and Craig Victory available. The Demon Deacons already own wins over both UCLA and Indiana.

Butler transfer Elijah Brown has scored 15 or more points in eight of New Mexico’s nine games this season. The 6-4 guard is a volume scorer and is averaging 18.9 points for the Lobos, who are currently 7-2 overall. Brown is the son of former NBA head coach Mike Brown.

The most underrated part about Florida State right now is how well Xavier Rathan-Mayes is distributing the ball. The 6-4 guard has handed out 15 assists over his last two games and is averaging 6.4 assists on the season after tallying just 4.3 a year ago. This guy has sacrificed his own offense thus far to incorporate both Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley into the mix in Tallahassee. The Seminoles are 7-2 overall.

Illinois is currently playing without its projected starter at point guard (Tracy Abrams), power forward (Leron Black), and center (Mike Thorne). How many programs in America could function like that?

Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody is quietly averaging 29.0 points over his last three games. The 5-10 guard is doing a little bit of everything for the Rebels and has the emerald green light from head coach Andy Kennedy. Moody is averaging over 20 shot attempts in his last four games. Very few players in college basketball deserve that type of freedom, but Moody is an exception. He’s currently averaging 24.1 points while shooting 42.5 percent and 35.4 percent from 3-point range.

The schedule makers are doing the college hoops junkies no favors on Saturday. Villanova/Virginia, Duke/Utah, Auburn/Xavier and Wichita State/Seton Hall all tip at noon ET while UCLA/North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic begins at 1 p.m. ET. You’d think they could spread these things a little bit.

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