What Has Happened To Seton Hall?Posted by Brian Otskey on January 30th, 2012
Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC. He covered Louisville’s 60-51 win at Seton Hall on Saturday and filed this report.
Heading into a two-game home stand against a pair of middle of the pack Big East teams, Seton Hall players, coaches and fans thought two consecutive road losses to South Florida and Villanova were nothing more than a bump in the road. After all, the team started the season 15-2 and 4-1 in the Big East and looked well on its way to the program’s first NCAA berth in six seasons. After dropping both games this week to Notre Dame and Louisville at the Prudential Center, the 15-2 start seems like light years ago and the prospect of a spot in the 68-team NCAA Tournament may be only a dream at this point. Seton Hall shot a mind-blowing 26% against Notre Dame and 28% against Louisville in its own building, scoring only 93 points combined in the two games. Head coach Kevin Willard was candid after the Louisville loss saying, “We really suck offensively right now.” That much is obvious but why is this happening? Let’s attempt to determine what is going on with the Pirates.
Seton Hall is now on a four game losing streak and faces three upcoming road games: at Marquette, Connecticut and Rutgers. If the Hall doesn’t get at least one of those, it will return home on February 12 to face Pittsburgh with a 4-8 Big East record, a stunning collapse for a team that had been playing so well for an extended period of time. How does Seton Hall reverse this trend and get back on the winning track? There are many things that must change but it starts with Willard’s two senior leaders, Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope.
Theodore has done an admirable job running the point this year for the Pirates. While his shooting percentages are down from last year, his assists have jumped from 4.4 per game a year ago to 7.0 this season without a major increase in turnovers. Looking at the assists alone, you notice a drop off right away over Seton Hall’s four-game slump. In the Hall’s first five Big East games (4-1), Theodore averaged 8.2 APG and 18.2 PPG on 45.6% shooting. Those are numbers that would put any player in the conversation of the best point guards in the conference and maybe the nation, a discussion Theodore was in the thick of just two weeks ago. In his team’s extended slide, Theodore has averaged only 4.3 APG and 14.5 PPG on a putrid 27.9% shooting. The senior point guard’s turnovers have shot up to 3.5 TOPG as well, above his season average. Point guard is the most important position in college basketball and Seton Hall’s success begins and ends with Jordan Theodore.
In non-conference play, Herb Pope was a dominant force and even found himself on some early National Player of the Year lists. Seton Hall went 11-1 out of conference, buoyed by Pope’s 20.3 PPG, 11.4 RPG and 54.6% field goal percentage. Pope was highly ranked in efficiency metrics and was the best big man on any Big East team at the time. Once conference play started, everything changed for the senior forward. Pope, truly a face-up four, has been playing out of position at center every season in South Orange. That has been exposed more than ever this year as Big East front lines have had their way with the 6’8”, 236-pounder. Pope is averaging just 10.1 PPG and 9.0 RPG in conference games, statistics that include Seton Hall’s four game Big East winning streak from December 30 to January 10. Worse yet, Pope is shooting 35.2% from the floor, an awful percentage for a guy who takes the vast majority of his shots in the immediate vicinity of the basket. Pope has never been a good finisher around the tin, but those woes have been magnified over the last month. Have you ever seen a big man shoot 2-for-16 from the floor? Herb Pope did that against Notre Dame on Wednesday and he wasn’t much better against Louisville (4-13) on Saturday night. Pope has been through a lot in his short life (two perilously close brushes with death, fathering a child and a troubled family situation) so you have to wonder if something off the court is taking its toll on his play. While going up against much more talented frontcourts than he saw out of conference (who scout you on a regular basis as well) is certainly a reason for the statistical drop, the bottom has fallen out of Pope’s season halfway through Big East play.
While Seton Hall’s fortunes ride on Theodore and Pope for the most part, good teams always have ancillary parts that contribute on a regular basis. For the first 17 games, Fuquan Edwin and Aaron Cosby were just that for the Pirates. Edwin, the national leader in steals per game, averaged 20.8 PPG on 59.3% shooting in Seton Hall’s four Big East wins, outstanding numbers for a player who isn’t the first or second scoring option on this team. In the Pirates’ five Big East losses however, the sophomore swingman is averaging only 7.2 points on an ugly 23.5% shooting. Edwin is just an average spot-up shooter but he thrives when slicing through the defense and getting out in transition, often fueled by a steal of his own. When Edwin doesn’t score early in the game, he tends to disappear and/or become saddled with foul trouble. That takes him completely out of Seton Hall’s offense and it becomes essentially a two-man operation with one of those men (Pope) really struggling. As for Cosby, the freshman out of Louisville looked tight against his hometown team. Cosby is as one-dimensional player as can be with 72% of his field goal attempts coming from beyond the three point arc. He is a good shooter but it appears he has hit the freshman wall. Cosby has scored just 5.3 PPG over the losing streak on an anemic 23.5% shooting from deep. In Seton Hall’s first five Big East contests, Cosby averaged 9.6 PPG and made 41.9% of his threes, ranking among the best three point shooters in the Big East as recently as January 10. Cosby has the same issue as Edwin with regards to disappearing if he doesn’t get in the flow of the offense early. It’s human nature for a freshman to take a back seat to two seniors but Willard needs Cosby more involved in the offense for the Pirates to start winning again. While you can’t blame the losing streak on a freshman, Cosby has to step his game up as part of a collective effort to help pull Seton Hall out of this funk. With the way this team is constructed, he is the fourth scoring option and can’t afford to be bricking threes when his only purpose as a young player on this team is to make those shots, something he did very well up until two weeks ago.
In his postgame press conference Saturday, Willard mentioned how Edwin has not been able to run and score in fast break situations over the last few games and how that is really holding him back. In general this is not a Seton Hall team that executes well in a half court setting. The Pirates don’t play at a quick pace but they must score transition buckets in order to be successful. What is alarming is the fact that Seton Hall forced 24 Louisville turnovers and converted them into only 23 points. Only five of the Hall’s 51 points were scored off fast breaks meaning it couldn’t turn live ball turnovers into immediate points while increasing the tempo. Seton Hall did rally from a 17-point deficit after digging themselves an early hole, getting the lead down to four points with about a minute remaining but it was too little, too late. The Pirates are actually forcing more turnovers during the losing streak than before it. Seton Hall’s defensive turnover percentage is 25.6% over the last four games compared to 22.3% in the 17 previous contests. The Hall just isn’t converting offensively while creating more opportunities for itself off its defense. That was never more evident than a stretch in the second half against Louisville where Seton Hall made seven consecutive stops (which included four Louisville turnovers) from the 12:02 mark until the 7:52 mark but could only trim two points off Louisville’s 11-point lead at the time. Seton Hall went 7:05 without a field goal during the second half, mostly during that crucial span where the Cardinals tried everything to give the Pirates a chance to make a comeback.
So how does Seton Hall go about fixing its problems? It begins and ends with better offense. While the defense has slacked off a bit (96.9 non-adjusted efficiency over the last four games) from where it was earlier this season (92.6 over the first 17 games), it is not the reason why the Pirates have struggled. This team’s offense has fallen off a cliff with the players looking tight and gun-shy. Theodore is trying to lead but even he is taking too many shots and not converting. Seton Hall’s non-adjusted offensive efficiency has dipped from 107.9 over the 15-2 start to 85.2 during the four game losing streak. A simple explanation would be that the competition has gotten tougher but South Florida, Villanova, Notre Dame and Louisville are not world-beaters, especially the former two. A team’s offense just doesn’t nosedive like that without something major happening. Maybe guys are playing hurt and not telling anyone? Maybe something happened off the court that is being kept under wraps. It is hard to pinpoint what exactly is going on with Seton Hall’s offense other than it is not sharing the ball well enough, not getting out in transition and simply just not making open shots. You don’t start the year 15-2 (4-1) with smoke and mirrors in the Big East conference. It’s undeniable that this team, picked 13th in the preseason Big East coaches poll, had overachieved but many thought this was a very good basketball team just three weeks ago. The Pirates made it back into the AP Top 25 for the first time in 11 years on January 9 but promptly fell out the following week. Could it be as simple as just not being able to handle success? Willard said after the Notre Dame loss that, “We have a lot of ‘I’ going on right now.” Does that mean that the increased national exposure is causing some players to abandon the team concept and “get theirs” just to increase their own stock? There’s probably some of that involved but it can’t be the only reason why Seton Hall has struggled.
Despite the brutal road stretch ahead, Seton Hall is still a 15-6 (4-5) team with a chance of making the NCAA Tournament. After the Louisville game, Rick Pitino said the Pirates only have to finish 9-9 to make the big dance. “Their RPI is so good, all they got to do is finish .500 and they’re going to the tournament,” he said. Seton Hall’s RPI stands at #31 as of this writing but it was in the top five just a few weeks ago. If the RPI continues to plummet at that pace, the Pirates will find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble. Seton Hall has to have a solid February and probably win a game or two at Madison Square Garden to make the NCAA’s. Four of Seton Hall’s last six games are at home so the opportunity is certainly there for the team to get to 9-9 in conference. Winning one of the next three on the road would be a huge boost because it would take a little pressure off of the home games against Pittsburgh, St. John’s, Georgetown and Rutgers. That said, who knows what to expect from this team now. It is probably not as good as its 15-2 start but can it really be as bad as it has played recently? Doubtful. The Pirates need to re-focus and get back to the team basketball that vaulted them in position to make the NCAA Tournament to begin with. The chance is still there, but it will rapidly fade away barring a collective re-grouping and major turnaround.