Night Line: Seton Hall Playing Well for the First Time in a Long TimePosted by EJacoby on December 22nd, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
For the past five seasons, perhaps no Big East team has underachieved as much as Seton Hall. The Pirates haven’t given fans much to be excited about since their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2006, despite having several talented players come through the program. The Hall haven’t won 20 games since 2003-04, and have been a mainstay in the NIT ever since. This year was expected to be much of the same, as Kevin Willard inherited the challenge of leading a team that lost its two leading scorers from last year’s 13-18 campaign. But after a strong road win over Dayton on Wednesday night, the 10-1 Pirates are on their way to a potentially NCAA Tournament-bound year, thanks to two veteran Big East leaders and an improving group of young players. After many disappointments, Seton Hall is finally overachieving and bringing some hope to its loyal fans.
These are certainly not your Pirates of old. Gone are last year’s leading scorers Jeff Robinson and Jeremy Hazell, and so is the sloppy offense that ran through the volume shooting guard. Last year, Seton Hall scored just 0.98 points per possession, ranking in the bottom 100 teams nationally. They really didn’t do anything well offensively, and the game plan often focused on getting Hazell going from the perimeter. The senior chucked nearly eight threes per game, and he never quite found his groove before suffering a season-ending injury. This year, the Pirates run a more balanced offense leading to 1.08 points per possession, an improvement to #65 in the country. They move the ball well and boast a 1.26 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks in the top 30 nationally. Seton Hall is no longer running a one-man offensive show, and it’s producing much better results.
This season’s fast start can be attributed mainly to the tremendous productivity of the team’s two senior leaders. Herb Pope, who has overcome two near-death experiences in his young life, has not only grown as a person but also as a player over the course of his career. Pope has been the most dominant big man in the Big East this season, leading all conference players in scoring (21.4 PPG) and rebounding (11.6 RPG) thus far. He also shoots a strong 54.8% from the field and chips in 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. You won’t find a more productive forward/center in the conference right now. His teammate, senior point guard Jordan Theodore, is putting up some gaudy numbers as well. Theodore leads the Big East in assists with 7.2 per game, which is the fifth highest number in the nation. He also scores 14.8 points per game while chipping in on the boards (3.6 RPG) and on the defensive end (1.8 SPG). The inside-outside combo of Theodore and Pope is the source of consistency behind a strong start for the Hall.
While the seniors lead the charge, it’s the young Pirates players who have brought a surprising amount of energy and consistency to the floor. Sophomore guard/forward Fuquan Edwin is another Big East leader, topping the conference with 3.2 steals per game. Between Edwin, Pope, and Theodore, the Pirates have the Big East’s individual leaders in four of the five major statistics. Edwin also grabs 6.1 boards and scores 13.5 points per game at a 54.9% shooting clip. His fellow sophomore forward Patrik Auda is now up to 9.6 points per game after scoring a game-high 18 points in Wednesday’s victory, and Auda also shoots 50% from the field. Finally, Aaron Cosby is a freshman shooting guard with a smooth stroke that looks to be playing with more confidence as the season continues. Cosby had 13 points on Wednesday including a 3-6 night from behind the arc. Seton Hall has started these same five players in each of its 11 games, producing a level of consistency and giving each player enough time to grow into an understanding of his role.
After Wednesday’s five-point win at Dayton, the Pirates have put together a resume worth discussing as not just NCAA Tournament-strong, but possibly Top 25-worthy. This team’s only loss came in the finals of the Charleston Classic tournament to a solid Northwestern squad, in a game they could have easily won. Earlier in that tournament, the Hall knocked off two good teams in VCU and St. Joseph’s. They also have wins over Auburn, Wake Forest, and now a nice road victory in Dayton. While none of these are eye-popping victories, the collection of three strong wins and two others against power conference teams. After a cupcake on Friday (at Longwood), Seton Hall most likely will head into the Big East schedule with an 11-1 record. You’ve got to think that a 9-9 record in conference play, putting the team at 20-10 overall, would be good enough to get the Pirates back to the Big Dance. Of course, it depends on who they beat and where they accumulate those nine conference wins, but there’s certainly reason for optimism in northern New Jersey about Kevin Willard’s team. Given how their leaders have played in the non-conference slate, Seton Hall will finally have a chance to make some noise in the Big East this season and get themselves noticed on the big stage for the first time in a long time.