If you have been following the Seton Hall men’s basketball program at any point during the Kevin Willard era, you have probably repeated the same question at the start of every season: “Is this the year Seton Hall ______?” For most fans and alumni, the question ends with “Is this the year Seton Hall makes the tournament?” For others (with slightly lower expectations), the question is usually “Is this the year Seton Hall doesn’t implode”… ok and make the tournament too. In actuality, last season appeared as good a year as ever for this to occur and the derivative of that optimism can be traced even further back to the end of the 2013/2014 season: Seton Hall was entering the Big East Tournament after finishing another disappointing 15-16 (6-12) record in the “new” 10 team Big East. However after beating Butler in the 1st round, they were assumed to be left for dead in the Quarterfinals against #3 Villanova, until this happened:
Seton Hall went on to lose to Providence in the Semifinals but there was a lot of optimism with the assumption being that if they could play that well to end the ’13/’14 season, then ’14/’15 had to be that much better, right? In fact Seton Hall was returning Junior guard Sterling Gibbs, Sophomore sharp shooter Jaren Sina, and veteran Senior forward Brandon Mobley. This was in addition to a nationally heralded top 20 recruiting class which included a blue chip consensus McDonalds All-American in Isaiah Whitehead and top 100 big man Angel Delgado. As the season started, fans were further reassured they would be ‘dancing in March’ after the Pirates started the season 13-3 including thrilling wins over #15 St Johns, #6 Villanova, and immediately saw their national stock sky rocket to being ranked #19th in the country. But then the proverbial wheels came off the bus- again for a Kevin Willard coached team- with the Pirates spiraling out of control (and out of any tournament contention) losing 12 of their final 15 games. During this time the Pirate faithful witnessed on court dissension between Whitehead and Gibbs (although they still deny there was any animosity), Sina unexpectedly quitting the program, and Gibbs slamming Ryan Arcidiacono’s head to the court in a scramble on the floor. If that wasn’t bad enough, Sterling Gibbs followed that up by announcing he was transferring out of the once promising program he was supposed to help lead into at least late March. This left a very bitter taste that lingered long into the dead of the offseason.
Now we sit here on the eve of a new season, one that brings new faces, new hopes, and again dreams of a postseason. So we are left to ask ourselves, “Is this the year for Seton Hall basketball to take that next step forward?” The truth is, the jury is out and quite frankly will remain that way until the Pirates get somewhat deep into Conference play. However three major points will determine how resilient this team develops come March/April, and thus may help answer our constant underlying questions.
The departure of Sterling Gibbs & Jaren Sina not only left both guard positions as question marks but simultaneously reduced the level of veteran leadership and experience in the backcourt as well. Isaiah Whitehead will assume responsibilities as the floor general this season and will need to immediately demonstrate significant improvement for the entire offense to be effective. This may sound like an obvious statement, but shooting 36.7% while having an assist to turnover ratio of 1.06 like he did last year will be far from a recipe for team success. In his defense, he was forced out of his natural position (and comfort zone for that matter) when sharing the floor with both Sina & Gibbs, and now has had an entire off-season to get comfortable running the point. The 6’4 Whitehead will have a chance this year to show the pro scouts why he will succeed at the next level by doing the little things right: taking care of the ball, getting teammates involved, and scoring- three things I feel he will be able to accomplish in his second season. In respect to leadership on this roster, Whitehead will look to step this up too heading into his 2nd year, but he will not have to carry the entire load on his back as Derrick Gordon, the UMass Graduate transfer, will prove to be an asset in this department. His experiences playing for a competitive A-10 team will pay immediate dividends, but in addition, also having the High School experience playing alongside star players such as Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at St Patrick Academy will help him to blend well with the Whitehead’s and Delgado’s on this team. In a comparative way, Gordon will look to fill the role that Iona Grad transfer Kyle Smyth played on the team a few seasons back. However Gordon will be looked upon to provide more production on the court whereas Smyth, who is now part of the Pirates coaching staff, was brought in to provide extra depth off the bench and to reflect a veteran presence. The wild card for this team this year will be the success of freshman Veer Singh. At 6’7 Singh can be a factor utilizing both his size and range to create the spacing and offense needed to compliment the team by playing both the guard and forward position. The consistency of Angel Delgado, reigning Big East Rookie of the Year, is just as important, as he looks to dominate the boards and be a productive force inside the paint again this season. However for him to take that next step forward, Delgado needs to work on staying out of foul trouble early, improve upon his free throws, and avoid letting his temper get the best of him at times. It may have gone under the radar last season but it was a benefit to have Brandon Mobley take Delgado under his wing, especially on the court when it appeared Delgado’s emotions were taking over. With Mobley gone this season, Deglado will have to help the team by first helping himself, a task he’ll be ready to take on.
Under Kevin Willard, Seton Hall has notoriously scheduled weak out of conference opponents year after year. This year, Seton Hall appears to have scheduled a tougher slate in November and December. Starting with the Charleston Classic, Seton Hall has the potential to face off against #6 Virginia, barring they beat Long Beach State in the 1st round. They then come home to face a Georgia team that made the NCAA’s last year and a team in which Seton Hall struggled against last season. Their next game after that (and the 1st game in December) will be traveling on the road to play a tough George Washington team. And to finish a home and home started last year, Seton Hall will host #10 Wichita State on December 19th. Don’t be fooled, Seton Hall still will play weaker opponents with bad RPI’s such as Dartmouth, Bradley, and Troy, but the high caliber teams on the other end of the spectrum in both the Cavaliers and Shockers will be great exposure and experience for this young team. If they want to make the Tournament, these tough early season match ups against high RPI teams are exactly what this year’s squad will need to not only build confidence but also a solid resume.
It goes without saying but for a team to succeed they need a leader to take them there. Time and again we see Kevin Willard and staff able to recruit decent high school seniors or transfers (think Aaron Crosby, Sterling Gibbs, Kevin Johnson), only to see them get frustrated and leave the program. In addition, Sterling Gibbs’ tension with Isaiah Whitehead and his incident with Ryan Arcidiacono of Villanova weren’t the first times we’ve seen on court conflict either (think Herb Pope in the NIT). Obviously a coaching staff can’t always control the emotions of their players in the heat of the moment, but the way they go about addressing such things after the fact is even more important at times. Being outside the program, we aren’t always privied to what is said behind closed doors, but what we can do is observe how the team responds to adversity. In recent memory, there hasn’t been many Kevin Willard coached Pirate teams that have been punched in the mouth by some form of adversity (or even a simple losing streak), and have fought back proudly to overcome them. This current team has a chance to change that narrative and Kevin Willard has the opportunity himself to take that leap forward by avoiding any outside distractions, internal conflicts, and flare ups and immediately addressing them in a more effective manner than in year’s past.
Now living outside of Los Angeles, I can no longer attend every Seton Hall home game. Although I can still follow them from a day to day standpoint, I won’t get the feel and vibe of the Rock and the nuances of the team that I’m not exposed to from just following on TV or social media (especially now with the team imposing its own self ban). Recently I was fortunate to reach out to Steve Salerno, a lifelong and passionate Seton Hall alumni and fan, whom I have had the pleasure attending many games with also. Steve follows this team very closely and is open and honest with his assessments so I was happy to pick his brain and get his thoughts on the state of the program. The below is a Q & A we recently did together:
How did you become a Seton Hall fan and what got you into the basketball program?
I’ve been a Seton Hall fan since I was a kid. I always loved college basketball at a young age seeing all the passionate student sections on TV and loving the effort of the players. In addition, Seton Hall was a 10 minute drive from my house when they played their home games at the Meadowlands and the closest thing to a big program around. I loved them from the start and really got into it around high school, Andre Barrett’s last year. Through high school I was at every significant home conference game and been a season ticket holder ever since I attended college at Seton Hall (I think 7 years now). SHU has just always been my favorite team and going to school there just made it even more a part of me and made me so passionate about the team. Through thick and thin I stick with the Pirates and will be there to support them no matter what.
I’m always excited at the beginning of the season getting to start off with a clean slate. This year in particular, it will be nice to start off fresh after last year’s team falling apart after a great start, so I’m definitely excited for that. Also, I’m excited for last year’s Freshman (Delgado, Whitehead, and Carrington in particular) to continue to develop and have a strong season. I’m looking forward to seeing them run this team and reach their full potential. At the same time, this is something that worries me. Our Sophomores are still young and will be the core of the team again this year without much senior leadership, so that is definitely a concern. Also a huge concern is Coach Willard has proven he cannot handle a locker room during his tenure as head coach and his lack of leadership is concerning. With Willard as the Seton Hall coach, I think all Pirate fans should be concerned.
Isaiah Whitehead will be our PG this year with the departure of Gibbs- what are your thoughts on how he will handle this role?
I think Whitehead is going to have a great year. He is going to have to lead this team and I think after how last season went down, he wants to prove everyone wrong. I think he will score a ton, but will still have to develop himself at the position running the offense. We know he can score, but it will be interesting to see if he can run the point effectively to make the whole team better as well.
Kevin Willard has always produced a very weak Out of Conference schedule. There appears to be an upgrade this year in quality of opponent. Do you feel this way? Does anyone on the schedule excite you prior to Big East play?
The schedule is definitely much stronger than in years past, and I definitely agree it was frustrating not being tested in the non-conference schedule in the past. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Wichita State and Georgia at home this year. As you being a former season ticket holder, you know we’ve seen a bunch of non exciting non-conference home games. This year I’m definitely looking forward to seeing those 2 games and those matchups should be really exciting.
What is your prediction of Seton Hall’s record? Will they make the NCAA tournament?
I think Seton Hall will be around a .500 team this year. I do not think they are an NCAA Tournament team. The season is dependent on their big 3 Sophomores and Willard’s ability to control this team and I think if those go well, then they definitely have the potential to make an NCAA run. However, I think they fall short based on not being able to make it last year with a more talented team in my opinion.
If Seton Hall fails in your expectations, does Kevin Willard deserve another year?
No he does not. I honestly believe he didn’t deserve to make it through last year’s season with the drama that went along with it. I am not a Willard supporter after he played a role in the debacle that was last season and was shocked that he was given another year.
In order of teams that you despise the most, rank your top 3 Seton Hall rivals and why those teams in particular?
3.) Syracuse—I guess not much of a rival anymore, but had some battles back in the old Big East days. ‘Cuse fans always travel well and it was frustrating to play them at home and away with their crazy fans and good crappy teams.
2.) St.Johns—a classic local rival that I can’t stand! They always get credit for being better than they are and I can’t stand everything about their program including their players, fans, and coaches. I always root for the Johnnies to lose!
I want you to play Seton Hall’s Athletic Director for a day. What are some of the things you would seek to change about this program, both big picture and day to day even. (For instance, I would schedule more games at Walsh, would have students not pay for games, and would schedule more games against power 5 conferences for exposure)
I like your idea of playing more games on campus. It’s always a fun atmosphere on campus and I think it gives SHU much more of a home court advantage in a small arena like that. The games are always more exciting with an engaged student section so Walsh Gym would help that. But at the same time, we’ve seen that as long as they are good, the fans show up. So I think it comes down to hiring the right coach for the future who will bring in the best kids and mentor them. In college, you can have the most talented team, but college kids need a good coach to guide them as well. I think SHU is lacking that right now, and when these current Sophomores leave, SHU will be back to square one and left with a huge rebuilding project, in my opinion. Seton Hall is not going to turn into a powerhouse over night, but I think having a strong leader in the years moving forward is vital to success. You see the smaller schools that have success have great coaches. I think in this area, if you have the right guy leading the program, then it will all fall into place.