After a 17-15, 7-11 year in 2008-2009 in which the men’s basketball team added two benchmark recruits for future improvement, the fourth year of head coach Bobby Gonzalez’s time at Seton Hall is already surrounded with hype and speculation months before it gets underway.
Similarly, the Hall entered last season with a lot of question marks and media buzz, often stemming from four players leaving from the previous year including 1,000 point scorers Brian Laing and Jamar Nutter.
Those losses aside, excitement regarding the past season’s recruiting class gave the Pirates hopes to break out of the conference’s lower tier. Guard Jordan Theodore, forward Melvyn Oliver and guard Jamel Jackson were set to join the team as new recruits, but that didn’t quite play out as expected.
Jackson decided to return to his junior college, the Technical Career Institute in Brooklyn, for another year after encountering transfer problems with his grades.
Meanwhile, Oliver underwent an investigation by the NCAA Clearinghouse before finally being ruled academically ineligible for the Pirates just prior to the start of the season. He was allowed to practice with the team for a period of time last year, but that was as close as Oliver got to officially joining the Hall.
Theodore was only one of the three recruits from last year to begin his Seton Hall career. With his gritty defense and on-court leadership, he quickly became a fan favorite and oftentimes Gonzalez’s first option off the bench.
During the course of last year, Gonzalez brought in a pair of talented transfers to fill out the future roster. Guard Keon Lawrence, a Newark native, transferred from Missouri and was soon followed by forward Herb Pope from New Mexico State. Both have the talent to start for Gonzalez’s squad going into next year.
With recruiting troubles and transfers having to wait to play as per NCAA rules, the Pirates entered the 2008-2009 season with only eight scholarship players eligible. The slim roster led to open tryouts being held for the remaining spots and the team accepting four walk-ons, three of which played last year.
Theodore joined former Duquesne forward Robert Mitchell, who had sat out the year prior due to transfer rules, as well as a host of returning Pirates: guard Eugene Harvey, guard Paul Gause, center John Garcia, guard Jeremy Hazell, forward Mike Davis and forward Brandon Walters.
Despite plenty of criticism during the preseason, Seton Hall got out to an impressive 8-1 start, including a third place finish in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off where the team upset the eventual Pac-10 champions in the No. 19 USC Trojans.
Hazell had burst onto the scene as one of the top scorers in the league, and would finish the season second in the Big East at 22.7 points per game.
Mitchell transitioned to the Big East efficiently, finishing second for the Pirates in scoring with 14.6 points per game and an even more impressive eight rebounds per game while often playing undersized at the power forward position.
But Seton Hall struggled at the close of the non-conference season, getting upset at James Madison and vs. IUPUI in Dec. as Big East play loomed.
From that point, the Hall dropped their first six conference games, four of which came against nationally ranked opponents. Their first win came at home on the day where Seton Hall would welcome back the 1989 men’s basketball team to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their national championship appearance.
On the same afternoon, the current Pirates upset then No. 12 Georgetown, 65-60.
This seemed to give the team the lift it needed as it finished the rest of its conference slate with a 6-5 mark, including a sweep of interstate rival Rutgers, while closing the regular season with an overtime road win against NCAA Tournament hopeful Cincinnati.
Entering the Big East Tournament as the No. 11 seed, Seton Hall was eliminated after a second round loss to Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.
With no postseason play past the loss to the Orange, the rollercoaster season came to an end for Gonzalez and his team. Gause was the only loss for the Pirates due to graduation, and his presence may be missed next year as he finished second all-time in Seton Hall history in steals.
As far as the transfers making immediate impacts and getting the Hall to the next level in the Big East, Lawrence has been touted as a legitimate scoring option to help take the burden off Hazell and Mitchell.
Pope, meanwhile, gives the Pirates a luxury they have not had in the recent past in a player expected to fill the power forward spot naturally. Pope’s presence may allow Mitchell to return to a small forward position better suited for his size.
Rounding out the newest class of Pirates are guard Jeff Robinson, a transfer from University of Memphis, and forward Ferrakohn Hall, a state champion and leading scorer from the White Station High School in Memphis. Robinson, who transferred last winter, will not be eligible to play until conference play begins.
Jackson has also recommitted to Seton Hall and plans to be available at the start of the season. Oliver, on the other hand, has been mentioned by local media as expected to be cleared by the NCAA to play this season; yet no official announcement has yet come from the school on his status.
The most important part of this critical year for the Pirates will be to get into further postseason play. Since Gonzalez arrived in South Orange as head coach, he has taken teams no further than the conference tournament while accruing a 47-46, 18-34 record.
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