Never mind the Big East standings, where Seton Hall (15-9, 6-7) and St. John's (14-11, 4-9) both reside south of .500. Their only meeting of the season Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena was a true turf war, and if that wasn't clear from the emotion on display in the Pirates' 59-50 win over the Red Storm after losing injured Jeremy Hazell, it certainly was evident during the passionate postgame press conferences of St. John's coach Norm Roberts and Seton Hall's Bobby Gonzales.
For Roberts, it's possible he senses his chances to hold onto his job are fading after five previous seasons without an NCAA or NIT bid and none in sight. His team showed definite signs of reviving with two straight wins over Louisville and Notre Dame in which the Storm played tough defense and demonstrated real grit.
But against Seton Hall's 2-3 zone, they couldn't hit their own friendly rims. St. John's shot 32.8 percent from the field, including a miserable 3 for 15 from three-point range after missing their first 11 shots beyond the arc. Leading scorer D.J. Kennedy had two points on 1-for-10 shooting, and Anthony Mason Jr. had six with 1-for-7 aim.
"These guys try so hard," said Roberts, speaking in an impassioned voice and sounding as if he could be talking about himself as well. "They're trying so hard. They're trying hard to win. They want to win so bad. Sometimes, you almost can want something too bad, and that's how bad they want it. Tonight, we got tight, and we just didn't make it happen."
When someone asked about his players' morale, Roberts ramped up the emotion, evoking former Jets coach Herm Edwards and his "You play to win the game" speech. "Be a man! Be a man! Man up! Just man up!" Edwards fairly shouted. "It's life. It's life. Just move on. Nobody died. It's basketball. Move on. We'll see our mistakes, and we'll get better. It's a lesson learned."
At the upbeat end of the emotional spectrum was Gonzales, whose team has played an exciting brand of basketball while falling maddeningly short of the breakthrough wins it needs. Based on the Red Storm's numbers, this wasn't it. But when you factor in the circumstances surrounding the game and the fact leading scorer Hazell left with a hand injury with 8:21 remaining in the first half after scoring 10 of the Pirates, first 12 points, it looks a whole lot better.
"It's one of my favorite wins in my life because we lost in Carnesecca the last two years in a row," Gonzales said. "It's a metro area rivalry. It's our first [Big East] road win. We've won three in a row, and we hadn't done that. We proved we could play without Jeremy and Eugene [Harvey, also injured], which was big."
Last season, Gonzales complained that the game between local rivals wasn't scheduled for Madison Square Garden, which is where the Red Storm plays its premier opponents in the Big East. That view hasn't changed, though Gonzales tempered it somewhat.
"I didn't mean any disrespect [to St. John's]," Gonzales said. "But Seton Hall and St. John's are charter [Big East] members. We've been playing each other for 30 years. If you can't get 6,000 or 7,000 people in the Garden, that's tough. It's just wanting to be on the big stage, being on Broadway before the Big East tournament."
Of course, St. John's prefers Carnesecca, where the homecourt advantage should be more pronounced. But the fact is that Roberts' record in Big East games played on campus dropped to 8-7, which doesn't inspire confidence.
When the Pirates switched from man to zone defense midway through the first half, the Red Storm struggled terribly. Roberts said he expected it, but his team didn't execute as well as it did on Sunday at Notre Dame.
Gonzales saw it from a different perspective. "We played unbelievable defense," he said. "Fifty points is the low we gave up the whole year. They shot 33 percent from the field. I think we had a lot to do with that. We concentrated on D.J. Kennedy and a couple guys and tried to make it difficult for them to score.
"We talked about sitting down and keeping tight and not allowing them to drive through it. We watched film, and they'd shoot some threes but then take you off the dribble. We wanted to force them to shoot threes."
That's exactly what the Pirates did. Now, the two area rivals appear headed in opposite directions, and sometimes, that carries over in terms of recruiting and building for the future.
Perhaps St. John's still might attract an NIT bid, but it would have to win the conference tournament to go to the NCAA tourney. Seton Hall's prospects for reaching the NCAA are not nearly so far-fetched if Hazell returns from his injury and is effective.
"We don't know where we are in terms of the postseason, the NCAA or the NIT," Gonzales said, noting how close his team came to beating Virginia Tech and Temple, both of which are second in power conferences. "I hear all these teams in our league are on the bubble, but no one says, 'Seton Hall is on the bubble.' Our kids want to get in the conversation."
They're getting closer.