THE HALL ARE THINKING BIG
Head coach Kevin Willard of the Seton Hall University men’s basketball team has never led any of his teams past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In fact, prior to 2016, Willard had never taken a team to the NCAA Tournament in general. We’re only a few seasons removed from Willard himself being on the hot-seat, as questions emerged as to whether he would ever be able to bring the same success to Seton Hall University that he did at his previous stop, Iona College. And while Willard did take the Pirates to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons, the school still hasn’t won a single tournament game in 13 years. As the season nears, Seton is hall in and ready to make noise.
So how is it that, entering the 2017-2018 college basketball season, the Seton Hall Pirates are not only ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation, but they’re also a popular pick to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2018 NCAA Tournament?
For starters, not only is this the best team that Willard has been a part of since he was coaching alongside Rick Pitino at the University of Louisville in the early 2000’s, but it might be the best basketball team the folks at Seton Hall have seen since the early 1990’s. The Pirates are the only team in Division I that will be returning three players who have scored 1,000 career points: All-America candidate Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez. In an era where the “one-and-done” guys dominate college basketball, Willard’s team will have five guys who are four-year players among the top six guys in his rotation.
For a team with virtually unprecedented postseason aspirations, they have the key building blocks you’d want in a basketball team: an NBA-caliber big man in the paint (Delgado), and a battle-tested back-court (Carrington and Rodriguez). All three guys were part of Willard’s program-altering recruiting class of 2014, comprised entirely of guys from the tri-state area, and they all returned this season with the collective goal of leaving the program in a better place than it was when they arrived.
An alumnus of St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey — the same high school where Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played — Delgado was one of the nation’s premier rebounders last season, and a virtual double-double machine. He led the nation in rebounding last year, pulling down 13.1 boards per game, and recorded 27 double-doubles in 33 games played. In fact, after January 1st, he had only two games without a double-double (both were against Big East rival Villanova University).
Delgado stuck his proverbial toe in the NBA Draft waters after the season was over, but didn’t find it suitable to jump in. In mid-to-late May, he announced that “Coming back feels just right!,” officially stating his intent to return for his senior season. He even turned down a one-year, $100,000 offer to play in the Dominican Republic, where his family hails from. On top of his improving offensive game, Delgado’s presence in the paint allows Seton Hall’s wing players to aggressively defend players on the perimeter, knowing that Delgado can clean the glass better than anyone in the country.
MAKING THE SWITCH TO POINT GUARD
One player the Pirates did lose this off-season was guard Madison Jones, the team’s primary ball handler and assist leader from last season (not to mention one of its best defenders, too). That’s why, perhaps the biggest determining factor for Seton Hall’s success this season will be the transition by Khadeen Carrington, a natural scoring guard, to the team’s floor general. It won’t be a brand new role for Carrington, as he previously played the point in spurts behind Isaiah Whitehead his first two seasons, and behind Jones at times last year as well. But there’s a difference between spot duty and full-time responsibilities.
To prepare for the role, Carrington spent most of the summer glued to the hip of Willard and assistant coach Shaheen Holloway (both former point guards), and studying game film of other left-handed “hardwood quarterbacks” like James Harden and Mike Conley Jr.. Willard has always had the idea of Carrington playing the point in mind while the latter has been at Seton Hall, but it’s very possible that the Pirates’ ultimate success will be determined by how well this experiment works.
And then there’s Rodriguez, the team’s second leading scorer from last year, and one of its best shooters. An alumnus of Abraham Lincoln high school in Brooklyn — the same school that produced New York legends like Lance Stephenson, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair — Rodriguez is often looked at as the best player on this deep Pirates team, and is arguably one of the hardest working guys on the squad as well.
While the program’s cornerstone players are entrenched in their status as team leaders, they’re still going to be pushed by a cadre of newcomers that gives Willard perhaps his deepest and most competitive team he’s ever had as a head coach.
Freshmen Jordan Walker, Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili will likely get their share of playing time this year, but they’re already contributing before the season even starts. The uber-athletic Walker has played the role of “scout team point guard” in practices, going one-on-one with Carrington to help the latter get more acclimated with the speed and quickness of the point guards he’ll be playing against this season.
The super-competitive Cale has been challenging Rodriguez in practices, forcing the latter to bring his A-game each day. And the 6’10 Mamukelashvili already provides an interesting contrast to Delgado, as someone who can stretch the floor and facilitate the offense as well; think of a very raw and very young Nikola Jokic.
With all this talent at his disposal, Willard’s biggest challenge will be helping this team manage the newfound expectations set upon them. Willard admits that the team has risen to the challenge, as the maturity of its leaders has set the tone. There’s less joking around and wasting time in practice, and less partying and counterproductive activities off the court.
Regardless, it’s all fun and games right now, until the regular season officially tips off. Then it’s up to the Pirates to turn those expectations into accomplishments. The talented senior trio of Delgado, Carrington, and Rodriguez know that this is their last chance to leave a lasting impression at Seton Hall. They will now be the hunted instead of the hunter. Are they ready for the pressure that will now be placed upon them? Only time will tell. However, these 3 stars have seen it all in college. Now is the time for them to become legends and forever be known as the ones who changed Seton Hall basketball.
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