Coming into the 2015-16 season, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard found himself at a crossroads.
After having not posted a winning season in Big East play – and only two winning seasons overall – in his first five years at Seton Hall, Willard was looking at a do-or-die season.
Some people in Seton Hall circles felt that Willard had to show major progress or else he would be out of a job at the end of the season.
Progress there was. Major progress.
Backed by a special sophomore class, Willard capitalized on the best talent he had ever assembled. After a decent start, the Pirates really hit their stride late in the season.
Seton Hall won nine of its last 11 regular season games, which for all intents and purposes locked up its NCAA bid.
Then came the Big East Tournament.
The Pirates soon made themselves at home in Madison Square Garden, which is just across the Hudson River from their campus. They rode that late-season momentum to beat the eventual national champions, Villanova, in a thrilling Big East Tournament Championship Game.
Sure, Seton Hall would lose its first-round NCAA Tournament first-round game to Gonzaga, but Willard and the Pirates had already made their statement.
They were here to stay.
Although Willard loses the services of first-team All-Big East member Isaiah Whitehead, he has a core of four juniors who have been through a lot. Their experience and the late-season momentum they generated should enable the Pirates to contend for another NCAA Tournament bid.
Back are explosive scorer Khadeen Carrington (14.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game), rugged double-double threat Angel Delgado (9.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game), potential X-factor Desi Rodriguez (12.4 points, 5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game) and defensive specialist Ismael Sanogo (5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game).
Considering the talent and experience it brings back, Seton Hall was picked to finish in fourth place (tied with Georgetown) by Big East coaches.
Willard talked about the momentum gained last season and said he is hoping for some carryover.
“It’s been great for people to see what our kids are capable of doing,” Willard told Today’s U at last week’s Big East Media Day.
“This is a class that came in with those expectations (winning Big East titles and making the NCAA Tournament) and for them to be able to do it, it’s given a lot of opportunities for our players.
Willard went on to say that as a result of Whitehead being drafted and having two players (Carrington and Delgado) on the preseason All-Big East Second Team, the program’s visibility is rising.
Recognition of the hard work put in by Carrington and Delgado is having a positive impact on team morale.
“It’s given our players great momentum,” Willard said.
Still, how do the Pirates replace a huge part of their success in Whitehead?
Willard said replacing Whitehead will be a true team effort.
Although the world knew of Whitehead’s scoring exploits, few realize how well he facilitated the offense — he averaged five assists per game, which was good for third in the conference.
Willard grasps the significance of the loss of Whitehead.
“It’s a big void,” Willard said.
“It’s not going to be just one person,” Willard added. “It’s going to have to be a collective effort. This junior class is going to have to make small steps in getting better.”
Willard said more than anything, the loss of Whitehead will hurt on defense, too.
“We brought in some pieces (transfers Madison Jones, Jevon Thomas and four-star freshman Myles Powell) that have to come in and understand more than anything we’re going to have to replace his defensive presence,” Willard added. “We have to become better defensively.”
While the loss of the Whitehead can’t be easily dismissed, the chemistry this junior class has exhibited is something to admire. The Pirates are the type of team that will continue to fight and have each other’s backs.
They surely had Willard’s back last season; expect that to continue this season – even without Whitehead.