Maturity, Resilience & Strong Start Has Seton Hall Poised for a Special Season

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 5th, 2017

Picture this: It is March 11, 2015, and Marquette, with a conference record of 4-14, has just laid a 22-point beatdown on Kevin Willard’s Seton Hall team in the #8 vs. #9 game of the Big East Tournament. Marquette would go on to lose to Villanova by 35 points the following afternoon and Seton Hall fans are not happy. Local media and message boards are calling for the head coach’s ouster after five seasons at the helm (without any NCAA Tournament appearances), and Willard even experienced some in-person heckling from Pirate fans the night before. After all, the fans have just witnessed a once promising season that began with a top 15 recruiting class and a 13-3 record crumble to bits in epic fashion as locker room tension destroyed a young and immature team. What would become of that dysfunctional group of freshmen that lost nine of their last 10 games to end the 2014-15 season?

Seton Hall Has Risen From the Ashes of 2015 (USA Today Images)

Exactly 1,000 days later (yes, really), Willard is in the midst of his eighth season in South Orange and those freshmen (minus Isaiah Whitehead, now plying his trade with the Brooklyn Nets) have blossomed into talented seniors. Three of those seniors — Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington — form the only active trio of 1,000-point scorers in college basketball. The Pirates are coming off two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and a 2016 Big East Tournament championship run (two feats not seen since the P.J. Carlesimo era of the early 1990s) that included consecutive wins over top-five opponents for the first time in the program’s 114-year history. Willard’s experienced Pirates stand at 7-1 and are ranked 19th nationally following a week in which they won at No. 17 Louisville and defeated No. 22 Texas Tech at the very arena where the program hit rock bottom nearly three years ago. The win at Louisville was Seton Hall’s second true road win against a ranked ACC team in program history, and to date this season, the Pirates are one of only two teams to have recorded four non-conference wins against power conference teams (with three of those coming away from the Prudential Center). The other team? That would be No. 1 Duke.

Delgado, Rodriguez, Carrington and defensive stopper Ismael Sanogo have experienced a variety of emotions over their careers, from the highs and lows of the 2015 roller-coaster ride, to the euphoria of the program’s first Big East Tournament title in 23 years, to the late season rally that secured a 2017 NCAA Tournament bid after a 3-6 start to Big East play. That’s not to mention two disappointing first round NCAA losses to Gonzaga and Arkansas that the Pirates are eager to avenge. That process starts by building a quality resume in order to get a good seed and Seton Hall is well on its way toward doing that.

In Sunday’s win at Louisville and last week’s win over Texas Tech, the Pirates found themselves with their backs against the wall but were able to use their now-trademark poise and toughness to overcome it. After the Red Raiders game, Carrington was asked about the team’s resilience from battling back yet again. “It says that we never stay down. We took a bad loss to Rhode Island. I don’t think we came out strong like we usually do but we stuck with it. We came back the next day to beat Vandy and then we focused all week on this game. I think we did a really great job tonight.”

One key to Seton Hall taking the next step this season is with its offensive efficiency. Willard has never had a team ranked better than 72nd in this important statistic over his entire coaching career, but these Pirates currently sit at 17th in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom, after averaging 84 points per game against a pair of top 15 defenses. With Carrington now manning the point guard position, Willard can move sophomore sharpshooter Myles Powell into the starting lineup and now has scoring threats at all five positions. Texas Tech’s Beard was effusive in his praise of the Pirates’ offense: “The first thing I have to talk about is how they shot the ball. If they shoot the ball like that, with their talent and their coach, they’re going to play in the second week of the Tournament, at minimum.”

If Beard is right, the Pirates could be set to reenact the program’s March Madness glory days of the late 80s and early 90s. Seton Hall’s only Final Four team, which beat Duke in the national semifinals and subsequently lost by a point in overtime to Michigan in the 1989 National Championship game on one of the most controversial calls in sports history, had four senior starters (most from the New York/New Jersey area), including Ramon Ramos, a 6’8” forward from the Caribbean. Coincidentally, that is essentially the same makeup of this year’s Pirates team. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but sports have a funny way of coming full circle. This group has grown up in front of us and is a rare throwback to the days when college programs sustained success with talented four-year players. Mature, resilient and tough are three of the better adjectives you could use to describe them. They have dedicated the time and put in the work — now Willard’s team will look to reap the rewards in one final go-around for a group of seniors that made a once flatlining program relevant again.

Brian Otskey (269 Posts)

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