Even Without Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall is Here to Stay

Posted by Justin Kundrat on October 25th, 2016

Things took a turn for Seton Hall in the offseason when Isaiah Whitehead, the team’s leader and go-to scorer, opted to remain in the NBA Draft. Over the course of his two-year stint as a Pirate, the 6’4″ guard transformed from a ball-dominant, somewhat careless passer into one of the nation’s best combo guards. His 33.0 percent assist rate ranked 44th nationally and his savvy ability to get into the lane warped opposing defenses, summoning all help attention his way. In the wake of his departure, the prevailing concern is whether Kevin Willard‘s team can recoup its losses and turn in another Top 25 season. That sentiment is valid, but dropping the Pirates to a middle-of-the-pack conference contender and fringe NCAA Tournament team is overkill. There are a number of reasons why.

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Isaiah Whitehead is Gone But All is Not Lost at Seton Hall (USA Today Images)

1. The team’s stout interior defense will be largely unchanged from last season as forwards Angel DelgadoIsmael Sanogo and Desi Rodriguez all return. It was easy to appreciate the Pirates’ offensive prowess when Whitehead was improvising and making unfathomable plays — even if the Seton Hall offense was remarkably average from a metrics standpoint. The real backbone of the team, however, was its defense — the 10th-most efficient unit in the country and one of the very best at altering opponents’ shots.

2. Junior forward Delgado is poised for a breakout campaign. While Whitehead was the key cog in last season’s offense, Delgado’s role was also substantial. Not only was he the Pirates’ best rebounder and interior defender, but the Seton Hall offense took a remarkable hit when he wasn’t on the floor (a difference of 0.15 points per possession).

To compensate for its poor outside shooting, Seton Hall generated numerous second chance scoring opportunities from offensive rebounds. Delgado and fellow stretch forward Sanogo were two of the conference’s best at that particular skill, helping the Pirates recover 37.1 percent of its misses (37th nationally). This portion of the offense will remain intact. Without Whitehead, Delgado’s usage rate will climb and it would be wise for Willard to feature his ultra-efficient forward on the offensive end.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Big East Key Offseason Questions: Part II

Posted by Justin Kundrat on April 13th, 2016

The NCAA Tournament is now behind us and the days of transfers, NBA Draft declarations and coaching moves are upon us. April signals yet another ending, as we tear down everything we knew and build anew. The offseason has a way of inspiring hope that a new season will bring about improvement, that maybe this time things will be different. Consider where the Big East’s very own Villanova was just one year ago this spring. That unknown is why the offseason is such an intriguing time. Below is a list of key questions that each Big East team will attempt to solve over the coming six months. Part One, which included Butler, Creighton, DePaul, Georgetown and Marquette, can be viewed here.

ProvidenceWhat happens to Ben Bentil?

Ben Bentil Broke Out Big Time This Year (USAT Sports)

Ben Bentil Broke Out Big Time This Year (USAT Sports)

It’s a shortsighted question but the answer plays a large role in Providence’s long-term outlook. If Bentil leaves school this offseason, Ed Cooley will have to replace two players (along with Kris Dunn) who accounted for 51 percent of his team’s scoring, a virtually insurmountable task for this program. Rising junior Kyron Cartwright came into his own as a distributor this season, although his passing figures to be hampered without the All-American around to convert for him. His absence would force one of Providence’s role players to assume greater scoring duties, and the most likely candidate for that role is Rodney Bullock, a 6’8″ forward with a streaky shooting touch. It would be silly to completely write off this team off without Bentil returning, but having him back for his junior season would certainly put the Friars back into NCAA Tournament consideration. Providence fans will undoubtedly be on the edge of their seats for the next month.

Seton Hall: How will the Pirates’ defense fare without Derrick Gordon?

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

2015-16 Rush the Court All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on March 31st, 2016

Compiling preseason All-America teams is a difficult task because nobody knows what’s to come during the season. There will always be players who will fail to live up to expectations and there will always be relatively unknown types who will unexpectedly emerge to stardom. When our outfit of seven RTC pollsters selected their preseason All-America teams back in November; nobody could have guessed that only eight of the 15 players chosen would live up to the hype: Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, LSU’s Ben Simmons, Providence’s Kris Dunn, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Kentucky’s Jamal Murray, and Iowa State’s Georges Niang. Hield and Simmons were the only two players projected to be first-teamers and ended up there. The seven other players who did not make our postseason team are Maryland’s Melo Trimble, Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, Wichita State’s Ron Baker, Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige and Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes. All turned in varying degrees of productive seasons but were surpassed in achievements by the names that rose to the top of our list. Here are the 2015-16 RTC All-America Teams.

First Team All-America

first_team_2016

  • Buddy Hield, Senior, Oklahoma (consensus) (25.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 50.4% FG, 46.5% 3FG). Hield has wrapped up his collegiate career in dynamite fashion. After bypassing the NBA Draft last spring, Hield noted, “I just can’t wait to see what Coach Kruger has in mind for next year. I know we’re going to be a really good team.” Suffice it to say Hield was correct, as the Sooners are headed to their first Final Four since 2002. The explosive senior scorer has led the way all season with possibly no performance greater than the one he turned in during Oklahoma’s Elite Eight victory over Oregon. Hield finished the night with 37 points on a blistering 13-of-20 shooting from the field and an extremely impressive 8-of-13 outing from behind the three-point line. This college basketball season has been marked by uncertainty, but with Hield in tow, it is probably smart not to doubt Oklahoma’s chances in Houston this weekend.
  • Denzel Valentine, Senior, Michigan State (consensus) (19.2 PPG, 7.8 APG, 7.5 RPG, 46.2% FG). There was likely not a more complete player in college basketball this season. Valentine did it all for the Spartans and it seemed like the senior really stepped his game up in big spots throughout the regular season. He turned in an iconic triple-double in Michigan State’s early comeback victory over Kansas and came through with a 30-point performance in a February home victory over eventual Big Ten champion Indiana. While the Spartans saw their season end in a shocking upset to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Valentine’s incredible campaign should not be discounted in any way.
  • Brice Johnson, Senior, North Carolina (consensus) (17.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 61.6% FG). Given North Carolina’s lofty postseason expectations, it is not entirely unexpected that the Tar Heels are headed to the Final Four as the favorite to cut down the nets on Monday night. What has been a bit unexpected, though, is the rise of Johnson from a good player as a junior to a bona fide star as a senior. Johnson’s improvement over the course of his career has been so great that Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams has referred to his senior as the most improved player he has ever coached. To provide a glimpse of just how important Johnson has been to North Carolina’s run to Houston, consider the fact that he has recorded at least 20 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds in each of his team’s last three games.
  • Malcolm Brogdon, Senior, Virginia (18.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 45.7% FG). Virginia has been one of the most successful programs in the country over the last three seasons. It took home the ACC crown in both 2014 and 2015, and it earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament this year. A major reason behind this success has been Brogdon’s ascension into stardom. Brogdon’s fantastic senior campaign led him to being named both the ACC’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year – becoming the first player to win both awards since the defensive honor was introduced in 2005.
  • Ben Simmons, Freshman, LSU (19.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 56.0% FG). It is not often you see a player turn in a first team All-America season on a team that finished 19-14 and did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but this is that situation. The freshman entered the season with an unbelievable amount of hype, but somehow amid the hoopla, he handled it quite well. Simmons led LSU in points, rebounds and assists, and was clearly the team’s best player all season long. Simmons has already made it known that he is headed to the NBA Draft, but his lone season in Baton Rouge should be remembered for his consistently great on-court performances.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Rushed Reactions: Seton Hall 78, Villanova 76

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Seton Hall Shocked the World With Its Run to the Big East Title (USA Today Images)

Seton Hall Shocked the World With Its Run to the Big East Title (USA Today Images)

  1. Isaiah Whitehead proved he is the most talented player in the Big East. There isn’t a better player around when it comes to hitting clutch shots and making things happen offensively. Time and time again, head coach Kevin Willard put the ball in Whitehead’s hands and let him create something. And create he did. Tonight’s 26-point effort was the result of an endless stream of floaters in the lane, savvy moves to create space for shots, and a game-winning play down the stretch where he drew contact and finished an old-fashioned three-point play. It’s his uncanny ability to score combined with a penchant for putting his teammates in good position that makes Whitehead the best all-around player in the conference. The 6’4 sophomore has always had talent but his decision-making has caught up with his skill set. Gone are the forced passes and ill-advised shots; what remains is a heady player who now makes the right plays at the right times. Seton Hall is the clear beneficiary.
  2. Daniel Ochefu‘s injury takes away the best part of Villanova’s offenseThe 6’11” center has played in limited minutes this week due to an ongoing ankle injury, which he re-aggravated against Seton Hall tonight. Backup Darryl Reynolds was more than sufficient on the defensive end and held his own on the glass, but problems arose when it came to offense. Reynolds isn’t nearly the passer that Ochefu is, thereby eliminating the inside-out game that allows Villanova to generate open three-point shots. Instead, Seton Hall rarely doubled down on him and were quick to close out on Villanova’s shooters and force them to drive into traffic. Jay Wright will absolutely need Ochefu healthy should the Wildcats hope to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
  3. Seton Hall will no longer surprise teams in the NCAA TournamentIn back-to-back games, Kevin Willard’s group knocked off the #5 and #3 teams in the country and now have the full attention of every media outlet and head coach from coast to coast. These statement wins have given Seton Hall its first Big East championship in 23 years but have also correspondingly put a giant target on its back. After being continuously overlooked for much of this season, this team often succeeded by playing with a chip on its shoulder, but that will change as Seton Hall will no longer catch anybody by surprise.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Rushed Reactions: Seton Hall 87, Xavier 83

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 12th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways:

Khadeen Carrington starred in another Seton Hall victory. (Credit: (USA Today Sports Images)

  1. Derrick Gordon changed the tide in the first half. Seton Hall’s lone senior created havoc on the defensive end with his deflections and hustle plays all over the floor. He was everywhere and set the tone for the Pirates, who used a 24-12 first half run to take control of the game. Gordon was one of the most important acquisitions on the transfer market this offseason and has provided Seton Hall with the leadership it desperately needed after last season’s collapse. His hustle and will to win were on display again tonight and made a huge difference in the outcome. His experience and selfless play is invaluable to a talented but still quite young group of Pirates.
  2. Seton Hall matched Xavier’s toughness and physicality. The Musketeers are known for their relentless, hard-nosed brand of basketball. Tonight they encountered an opponent more than willing to play just as tough and just as physical, and Xavier didn’t react well to that. In particular, the Pirates got under the skin of J.P. Macura and Jalen Reynolds; both players picked up technical fouls and eventually fouled out. The physicality of the game played right into Seton Hall’s hands as it turned up the defense and held Xavier to 34.9 percent shooting for the game. It was an impressive display by a young team that doesn’t seem have fear of any opponent.
  3. Seton Hall is a dangerous NCAA Tournament team. The Pirates are clicking on all cylinders right now. Their defense has been strong all year and ranks among the top 15 nationally in adjusted efficiency, but the difference maker has been an improved offense. Seton Hall struggled earlier in the year with stagnancy, but their chemistry and ball movement has improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the last five weeks. That’s due in large part to Isaiah Whitehead‘s stellar play, but also a result of increased contributions from complementary players like Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington. Seton Hall will win games with its defense and rebounding, but the added offensive punch makes them a legitimate threat to make the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Handing Out the Big East Player Awards

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 8th, 2016

Perhaps the best thing about the Big East is its player continuity. With the lone exception of St. John’s, every conference team returned a significant portion of its key contributors from last season, tremendously benefiting the quality of the league as a whole. Moreover, retention allows fans an opportunity to track player growth and development through the years. As an example, four of last season’s six All-Big East first teamers returned to campus this season. Giving an award to one player over several other qualified players is always difficult, but after having watched or attended nearly every Big East game this season, this is one pundit’s take on the Big East’s superlatives.

Player of the Year: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Choosing a Big East Player of the Year is always a tough decision, and this year was no different. The award usually goes to the best player on the best team, but as a player of the year award, that means it should go to whomever has the biggest impact on his team. You might say that it is synonymous with most irreplaceable player. Josh Hart is undoubtedly the most important player on the best team in the conference, but Villanova has numerous quality offensive pieces and could find a way to survive in his absence. Kris Dunn completely changes the game on both ends of the floor, but his performance has tapered off in the last few weeks (to an extent because of illness). The toughest decision was to eliminate Ben Bentil, who quite simply played out of his mind while his teammate Dunn was struggling. The final distinction came down to this: Seton Hall drastically outperformed expectations this season and Isaiah Whitehead has been the primary reason why. Without the contributions of Whitehead, the Pirates would be an average team only capable of average things. In concert with Seton Hall’s rise, the sophomore guard has been virtually unstoppable in the last month of play, scoring more than 20 points eight times in his last 10 games. He has also recorded more blocked shots than any other guard in the conference, ranks third in fouls drawn and fourth in assist rate. His biggest development this season has been to exhibit an ability to make his teammates better. The improvement of Whitehead and the simultaneous emergence of Seton Hall as a Big East contender and certain NCAA Tournament team is no coincidence.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

What Lies Beneath: Isaiah Whitehead’s Passing Has Reinvigorated the Hall

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 9th, 2016

Isaiah Whitehead has undergone a radical transformation over the last three weeks. The 6’4″ Brooklyn native arrived at Seton Hall as a shooting guard stuck in a point guard’s body, and it showed his freshman year. His talent was undeniable, but the fit felt unnatural alongside Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina, both of whom preferred to have the ball in their hands. As a result, last season’s guard-laden backcourt eventually collapsed amid locker room disputes and a struggle for roles. When all was said and done, Gibbs and Sina departed, leaving the team in the hands of the rising sophomore Whitehead.

The emergence of a special Isaiah Whitehead has Seton Hall right in the mix. ( Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY Sports)

The emergence of a special Isaiah Whitehead has Seton Hall right in the mix. (Jim O’Connor/USA TODAY Sports)

The start to the newly-minted Whitehead era was a rocky one, as an early loss to Long Beach State was sandwiched between narrow victories over Wagner and Bradley. Now, just weeks later, the team has collected wins over Georgia, Wichita State and Marquette. Don’t look now, but the Pirates appear to be playing their way into the NCAA tournament. The development of the team’s sophomores is a big reason for the improved outlook, but the biggest transformation of all belongs to Whitehead, who has found the right balance within the scorer/distributor framework of a point guard. “After Rutgers he started playing at a good level. He’s letting the game come to him, he’s getting good shots. He knows when to be aggressive and when to pass the ball more now,” coach Kevin Willard said following his team’s win over DePaul. Make no mistake, too: This shift has not been gradual. It has been sudden and dramatic. Whitehead’s assist figures have exploded, and so too has the effectiveness of the team’s offense. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Seton Hall Defense Driving Early Success

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on December 21st, 2015

Wichita State’s self-described “Redemption Tour” broke up Saturday afternoon in Newark as the Shockers fell to Seton Hall in overtime. It did not, however, start out quite that way for the Pirates. Through the game’s first 13 minutes, the Shockers scored 33 points on 22 field goal attempts, going 5-of-7 from beyond the arc and 9-of-15 from closer, scoring 14 points on turnovers and runouts. “Actually, it was my fault,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard after the game. “I had too much time to watch film and I tried to be creative. I was trying to confuse them [Wichita State, with a zone defense], but I ended up confusing our guys. We got back to being real simple.” Real simple for the Pirates meant a physical man-to-man defense that shut down the lane and planted taller defenders on wings Ron Baker and Evan Wessel. Wichita State shot 12-of-42 for the rest of the game, and the defense that shut down the Shockers should put perimeter-oriented teams like Creighton and Villanova on notice — the Pirates are developing answers.

Desi Rodriguez scored a team-high in the Pirates' big win over the Shockers. (Saed Hindash/NJ Advance Media)

Desi Rodriguez scored a team-high in the Pirates’ big win over the Shockers. (Saed Hindash/NJ Advance Media)

Physical defense has been a trademark of Willard’s last two squads, especially with the additions of center Angel Delgado and forward Desi Rodriguez in the 2014 recruiting class. But this season is different given the progress of fellow sophomore Ismeal Sanogo and redshirt freshman Michael Nzei Willard providing options at the two forward spots. Willard’s move of Rodriguez to the small forward spot, where he used his size and athleticism to limit Wichita State senior Zach Brown (who fouled out the first time this season) to three points on 1-of-3 shooting, was a very good strategy. Having Nzei and Sanogo inside adds a physical dimension to the Pirates’ defense. “Since I’ve been here we have had very skilled four men — Patrik (Auda), Brandon (Mobley) — Ismael and Mike are the complete opposite of Brandon and Patrik, much more junk yard dogs, athletic,” Willard explained after the win. “Ismael uses his athleticism really well. He can get above the rim and rebound. They have been — I keep saying this — the two of them have been the best surprise, and they worked hard, they are the best surprise by far this season.” Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Big East Season Preview: The Dark Horses (#4-#6)

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 10th, 2015

Part two of the Big East season preview highlights three teams that could be dark horses this year. All return key pieces from last season and figure to compete at a high level throughout the regular season. While the contenders (profiled tomorrow) look like near-locks to lead the pack and the outsiders (profiled yesterday) are likely going to stay near the bottom, this is the group (plus Marquette) whose season could go in either direction.

6. Seton Hall

Isaiah Whitehead will be given the keys to the ship. (USA TODAY Sports)

Isaiah Whitehead will be given the keys to the Seton Hall ship. (USA TODAY Sports)

Nobody can deny that the losses of Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina hurts Seton Hall, because they most certainly do. Gibbs in particular provided a scoring punch nearly impossible to replace; his decision to transfer to Connecticut was yet another blow to Kevin Willard’s efforts to build cohesion. It leaves the Pirates in the hands of three sophomores with undeniable talent and an encouraging amount of chemistry. Former high school All-American (and saviorIsaiah Whitehead will assume leadership duties, with Willard hoping he can play a bit less frenetically and run a more efficient offense. Joining him in the backcourt is breakout guard Khadeen Carrington, who surprised many last season by showing an uncanny ability to finish around the rim. Rounding out the trio is Angel Delgado, Big East Freshman of the Year and the league’s leading rebounder. The Pirates also add two transfers, welcome a few recruits (including, most notably, the versatile Veer Singh) and return some fringe contributors, but those three sophomores are expected to take on significant responsibility this season. Given the collective talent on the roster, Whitehead’s impending NBA departure and Willard’s hot seat, this is a make or break year in South Orange. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Seton Hall’s Problems Start at the Very Top

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 19th, 2015

Ask most people and they will tell you that strong leadership is a prerequisite to success in nearly every organization. There are countless examples of human beings responding positively to great leadership, especially in the sports world. It is simply human nature. People want to believe they are part of something greater than themselves. It is a big reason why coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari have such a fantastic ability to get the most from their players. They command respect and require that personal agendas and egos are set aside for the good of the organization. If you do not want to commit to the process and live up to their necessary standards, you are shown the door. Duke junior Rasheed Sulaimon found that out the hard way last month. It is understandable, however, that not every team will have such strong leadership. Exceptional leaders like Krzyzewski and Calipari are rare. But when a complete void in leadership exists, problems can quickly spiral out of control.

Kevin Willard (USA Today Images)

Kevin Willard is Feeling the Heat as This Season Gets Away From Him (USA Today Images)

A little over five weeks ago, the Seton Hall men’s basketball team was riding high after Sterling Gibbs swished a three in the final seconds that allowed his team to come out on top of a pesky Creighton squad that had outplayed the Pirates for most of the game. The win moved the team to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in Big East play, enabling it to stay in the Top 25 after entering at No. 19 the previous Monday. Barring a complete collapse, an NCAA Tournament berth appeared inevitable; after all, Seton Hall’s hot start had also included a résumé-building win over previously unbeaten Villanova, the undisputed king of the new Big East.

Fast forward to the present and Seton Hall is in the midst of a monumental collapse where it appears the only way to gain entry into the NCAA Tournament would be to win the Big East Tournament next month. Once projected as high as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed by reputable bracketologists at CBS and ESPN, the Hall has lost eight of its last 10 games (including five straight) to fall to 5-9 in Big East play with no end to the death spiral in sight. The ugliest moment came on Monday night in a loss to that same Villanova team. The Wildcats blew out the Pirates by a score of 80-54 and Gibbs was ejected after punching a defenseless Ryan Arcidiacono — who was on the floor going after a loose ball at the time — square in the forehead. Swift consequences came quickly for Gibbs, who was suspended for two games by Seton Hall on Tuesday afternoon. Once a candidate for Big East Player of the Year, the junior guard will sit out games at St. John’s this Saturday and home versus Creighton the next weekend. Monday night’s antics were just another symptom of the deeper problem at Seton Hall, which brings us back to leadership.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story