It is worth considering how the men's college basketball world would be talking about Seton Hall if the past two seasons had unfolded in reverse order. The early, dizzying rise of last year's team, followed by a disastrous final few weeks, have introduced a strong dose of caution to the equation as the Pirates make a bid for the NCAA tournament this season.
As it happened, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, after four seasons cleaning up a program left in rough shape by the tumultuous tenure of Bobby Gonzalez, put together a top 15 recruiting class highlighted by the supremely talented guard Isaiah Whitehead. In that group's freshman season, despite an injury that limited Whitehead to just 17 games, Seton Hall finished the 2014-15 campaign with a 16-15 record, including a pair of wins over ranked teams. The bulk of that team's young talent is back this year, with further improvements at the margins. The idea of the Pirates as a team on the rise, centered around Whitehead, is reality, not myth.
"It feels a little more realistic," Whitehead said after a late January 72-71 loss to Villanova, a team that might just be the best in the country. Whitehead was splayed across a couch in the Seton Hall locker room, surrounded by a half-dozen reporters, clearly exhausted after nearly willing his team to a victory that would've forced the nation to take notice. "Last year, everything came so fast. We got some good non-conference wins and some road victories in the Big East. I wouldn't say it's better to win-lose, win-lose, but sometimes it's better because you can get too high. I think a team can get too comfortable."
It was a win over Villanova last season that marked the apex of Whitehead's freshman season. The win over then sixth-ranked Nova followed a victory over 15th-ranked St. John's, and elevated Seton Hall to 12-2 overall, 2-0 in the Big East, and up to 19th in the national rankings. What came next, though—a 4-11 finish and dissension within the team that led to transfers from players like Jared Sina and Sterling Gibbs—seemed to sap the program's supporters of much of their enthusiasm. Even Willard, a calm, consistent voice of patient optimism, didn't want to get ahead of himself in discussing the team's progress.
"I think we're better at some points," Willard said after the Nova loss. "I think we struggle at other points. Each team, each year is different. I love this team, I love the effort they're giving me. I love where we can go. So I definitely feel that this year is an improvement over last year."
What's different about this team is twofold. The talent is more evenly spread out, and there's essentially no one within the regular rotation who isn't contributing significantly. Six of the top seven in minutes played for the Pirates this season have a Player Efficiency Rating of at least 15.4—that's better than average production and up. Out on the wing, Whitehead's fellow sophomore Desi Rodriguez is making a case for first team All-Big East honors and shooting 37.9 percent from three, while sophomore guard Khadeen Carrington is a menace with the ball, slashing and shooting threes. Angel Delgado, another sophomore, has continued his strong defense and rebounding while converting opportunities on the interior, and yet another sophomore, Ismael Sonogo, is the rare 6'7" interior shotblocker/rebounder guard. While they ranked around 100 in the nation both offensively and defensively last year, Seton Hall is now a top 30 defense, and can beat you on the offensive end in a number of ways.
"They drive the ball as well as anybody in the country," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Seton Hall is a really good defensive team. And they lock down, especially some of our younger guys, who weren't physical enough. It's not about making plays, you've got to be physical, people are grabbing each other."
I asked Wright if the Pirates were an NCAA tournament team.
"Hell yes," Wright responded. "They're definitely an NCAA tournament team. They had all the answers. And they shoot the ball well—what were they, 7-for-18 from three tonight? Went to the foul line 20 times, 16-for-20. A lot of times, teams that drive the ball just don't make free throws. And these guys always make free throws. Fourteen assists. They're a good team."
The one Seton Hall regular who isn't at least 14.9 PER is transfer Derrick Gordon, whose inefficient offense shouldn't overshadow his development as one of the better on-ball defenders in the country. That Gordon is on the team at all is another thing that distinguishes Willard's tenure from his predecessor's. Unlike the volcanic and autocratic Gonzalez, Willard has built relationships, withstood criticism, and hasn't hesitated to add or stick by players. He gladly brought in Gordon as a graduate transfer after Gordon's decision to come out as gay last year, making him the first publicly out NCAA men's basketball player.
Willard isn't only there for his stars, either. I won't soon forget the emotional connection between Willard and Tom Maayan, his onetime backup point guard who found himself locked in an extended bureaucratic battle with the Israeli army. The amount of time and energy Willard and his staff spent on Maayan, someone ultimately at the fringes of Seton Hall's basketball plans, reflects the way Willard operates, and is the biggest reason of all why Seton Hall has kept him despite just a 95-86 mark at the school, and no NCAA tourney appearances yet. Gonzalez left the program in dire need of a cultural shift, and Willard has accomplished just that.
You could see it on that Wednesday night game against Villanova. Fans had been slow to return this season to the Prudential Center, a high-major arena Seton Hall has often struggled to fill, but nearly 9,000 came and turned it into a classic Big East atmosphere despite a later than usual 9 PM start time. "Our students have always come out great," Willard said. "And I was pleasantly surprised by everybody else. Because that's nine o'clock on a Wednesday, and they work on Thursday.... That's a big ask, Wednesday night, nine o'clock in Newark."
Whitehead was ready to perform that night, and characteristically did everything the team asked of him. Seton Hall's first basket came on a Whitehead seamless dribble through a double team, followed by a kick out to Rodriguez for three. The second was recorded on a Whitehead slash and dish to Delgado for a dunk. It went on like this all game, with Whitehead silencing Villanova runs with big threes, using pick-and-roll action to get to the basket, and transitioning from distributor to scorer as the situation dictated.
"There's times that you've got to shoot, there's times when you've got to pass, and that's his learning process," Willard said. "I think he's done a phenomenal job of growing into the point guard role, considering last year he wasn't even playing, he was hurt, and this is his first year going through it."
In the second half, a Whitehead three ended the Nova run. An unstoppable dribble penetration cut the lead to two. Whitehead again used pick-and-roll action to attack the basket, and then Carrington found him behind the three-point line to give Seton Hall a 69-67 lead with 2:22 left. "Portions of the game, we had no answer for Whitehead," Wright said afterward. "He just killed us. But at the end, we did."
It's true. Villanova, paced by seniors Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono, made the necessary plays late to win. They're an excellent team, but Seton Hall gave them everything they could handle. The Pirates went on to hang with fifth-ranked Xavier in a tough loss on the road. Seton Hall's sophomores are still figuring it all out, but it's happening.
"It's experience," Willard said. "You have to go through and see. You have to learn from the good things you did. And we've got to learn from the bad things. They're getting better at certain situations, which I'm really proud of—and we have to get better at other ones. That's a part of growing.
"I have a lot of confidence in Isaiah. Although they're sophomores, I'm going to try and let them make plays towards the end of the game. They know that, and they have tremendous confidence in themselves. I'm going to let them do what they do best, which is play. And they played their hearts out."
After those losses to Villanova and Xavier—followed by wins over Big East minnows St. John's and Creighton, and a convincing win over a solid Marquette team—Seton Hall is still at 47 in the RPI, which is right at the edge of NCAA tournament entry. Accordingly, bracketologists have them anywhere from in the tournament as an 11 seed to, as the chief Bracketologist Professor Joe Lunardi recently had it, the very last team in the tournament.
In or out, Seton Hall is already a fun team to watch, and one that is growing organically. Whitehead is a future pro, and several other Pirates may be as well. They are getting better under Willard; it just hasn't been a linear progression.
"Last year it just came so quick," Whitehead said. "Even for me, and I wasn't even playing, just all the ranking came so quick. And I wasn't even on the court, so imagine how the guys felt. It's not always good to have ups and downs. But maybe sometimes it is."