NEWARK, N.J. -- After receiving a three-year contract extension last September, Bobby Gonzalez boldly proclaimed that his team was shooting for the NCAA tournament this season.
"I wanted to be in the postseason my third year, so to me, there's self-induced pressure on myself to get the team to the postseason because we haven't been there yet," Gonzalez said then. "The NIT is a lot harder to get into than it used to be, but I'm not going to be satisfied with the NIT -- that's not what I want for this team. I want this team to go to the NCAA."
With three games left in the Big East regular season, the Pirates appear to have a legitimate shot at making the Big Dance for the first time since 2006 under Louis Orr.
By holding off a late Rutgers charge en route to a 76-70 victory over their in-state rival Tuesday at the Prudential Center, Seton Hall improved to 16-10, 7-8 in the conference.
"When we play Rutgers, St. John's you just gotta win the game, whatever," Gonzalez said. "I don't care if it's by half a point, which I know doesn't exist."
Jeremy Hazell scored a game-high 25 points, including back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the second half, and earned the Joe Calabrese MVP. Hazell played with tape on his shooting hand after getting eight stitches because of a cut he suffered in a recent win over St. John's. Three other Seton Hall starters scored in double-figures.
Herb Pope had 6 points and 12 rebounds and gave Dane Miller an intentional foul in the final seconds when the Rutgers freshman went for what Pope called a "trick dunk." Pope ended up falling on Miller as both players fell to the floor. Miller hit two foul shots and finished with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Mike Rosario led Rutgers with 17 points but shot just 7-for-20 from the floor. Hamady N'Diaye (12 points, 14 rebounds) and Jonathan Mitchell (11 points, 13 rebounds) both had double-doubles for the Knights.
"When you're playing against Rutgers, you gotta get up every time," Hazell said. "It's a rivalry game, two metropolitan-area teams. Two New Jersey teams. So when you playing against them, it don't matter if we're playing six in the morning or three in the morning. We're going to get up and play for these guys."
Seton Hall entered the day as one of the first four teams out of the NCAA tournament, according to Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com.
Palm said that Seton Hall needed to sweep its remaining four games to get to 19-10, 10-8 in the league and then possibly win a game or two in the Big East tournament to make the Big Dance.
One down, three to go.
Seton Hall now faces Marquette at home on Sunday before visiting Rutgers and Providence to close out the season.
"It's a huge game, not just because of postseason aspirations but because they're a team that's probably an NCAA team," Gonzalez said of Marquette (17-9, 8-6), which visits St. John's Wednesday. "We haven't beat them in my three years in the conference. ... We have now won six straight home games and we want to take care of business at home. We don't want to get beat at home."
He added: "This could get us to .500 in the conference, which we've never been since I've been here."
Seton Hall entered the day in a pack of teams with 6-8 league marks just outside of the top eight. The top eight teams in the Big East get a first-round bye, and the top four get a double-bye.
Seven Big East teams are in the NCAA tournament, according to Palm.
Whether eight or nine league teams make it remains to be seen. UConn is also 7-8 in the league after its win Tuesday over No. 8 West Virginia.
"We have a lot of lions in this league eating their young," Gonzalez said. "Basically our conference sometimes puts people on the bubble and takes teams and puts them out of the NCAA tournament."
He added: "There are teams [from other leagues] that will get into the NCAA tournament that wouldn't last two seconds in our league. They wouldn't end up in 15th place."
While Seton Hall can still dream of the NCAAs, Rutgers coach Fred Hill has to wonder even more about his job security at season's end.
The Scarlet Knights dropped to 14-14, 4-11 in the conference with three games remaining, including a return date with Seton Hall March 4 at the RAC.
Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti said before the season he wanted to see "serious improvement" from a year ago.
As of now, the Knights have two more conference wins than a year ago, yet Hill has come out and said his team will make the NCAA tournament next year.
Hill said he envisioned a time -- in the not-too-distant future -- when all three local programs, Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John's, "are really fighting for something."
"We're all building right now," Hill said. "I think when we're all fighting for something it will be extremely meaningful and it will be awesome for this area.
"I think everybody's moving in that direction."
Hill added that he roots for both Seton Hall and St. John's when Rutgers isn't playing those schools, and that he roots for talented local players to choose those schools over Duke and North Carolina.
"If I can't get a kid I hope he doesn't go to Duke, I hope he goes to St. John's," Hill said. "If I can't get a kid I hope he doesn't go to North Carolina, I hope he goes to Seton Hall. We've got to get our share to stay in the metropolitan area."
As of now, Seton Hall owns the metropolitan area, with wins this year over both St. John's and Rutgers.
And a chance at the NCAA tournament still hanging in the balance.