The final three weeks of the Pirates’ 2008-2009 season was filled with significant match-ups. On Feb. 22, the team lost a close game to St. John’s that was highlighted by a non-foul call on a Eugene Harvey play.
Following the game against St. John’s, the Pirates defeated a struggling South Florida team, before losing back-to-back games to Pittsburgh and Louisville.In their final regular season game, the Pirates played Cincinnati to a 67-63 overtime win, essentially ending the Bearcats’ hopes for a NCAA Tournament berth.The Pirates then won their first Big East Tournament game since 2003 when they defeated South Florida for the second time, before being eliminated by Syracuse in a fifteen point loss at Madison Square Garden.Head coach Bobby Gonzalez said that, following last season, the team was close to competing with the elite teams in the conference.”We felt we were close,” head coach Bobby Gonzalez said at Seton Hall Media Day. “That feeling is good and bad. It’s good because you’re like ‘we’re almost there,’ but it’s bad because you’re not there yet.”The offseason was filled with media hype for the Pirates, notably following a three-year contract extension for head coach Bobby Gonzalez on Sept. 11.The extension removed Gonzalez from the pressure of being on the coaching hot seat, following three seasons of not making a substantial postseason tournament.Gonzalez said that there is no pressure to perform because, in years past, the team has performed.”We have won 17 games in two seasons while we try to rebuild,” Gonzalez said. “We over achieved from where we were picked.”This year, the Pirates are picked to finish No. 10 in the conference by the Big East coaches, ahead of both of their metropolitan area rivals, St. John’s (ranked No. 11) and Rutgers (ranked No. 15).”We think there’s an opportunity to take over the metropolitan area,” Gonzalez said.As far as the players go, the team itself is ready for the season to start.”We competed with the top dogs last year, now we’re ready to challenge the top teams this year,” junior transfer Herb Pope said.Gonzalez expects Pope to see significant minutes in the power forward slot, and possibly even at the center position.”We have a guy in Herb Pope that is probably one of the best rebounders I have ever coached,” Gonzalez said.Gonzalez also noted that rebounding is an area of the team’s game that needs improvement from last year.Last season, opponents controlled the boards against the Hall, out rebounding them 775-578 for the season.”I think that we are going to be better in rebounding not only because we have worked on it, but because we have the personnel,” Gonzalez said.On the court this year, the Pirates will have two players listed as 6-foot-8 inches, Pope and freshman Ferrakohn Hall. John Garcia is 6-foot-9-inches and Melvyn Oliver is 6-foot-11-inches.The Pirates will also look to get better at their shooting. Last season, the Pirates shot just 43.9 percent from the field during the year.With the additions of Pope, senior transfer Keon Lawrence and junior transfer Jamel Jackson, the Pirates hope that there will be less pressure for junior Jeremy Hazell to take low percentage shots.”Jeremy wants to win,” Gonzalez said. “He knows that he can’t take as many bad shots.”Hazell expects this year to be different from previous seasons because of the shooters that are on this team.”Having Harvey, Jackson and Pope on our side, teams won’t be able to double me,” Hazell said. “It makes my life easier.”The Pirates also add depth to this season’s roster.Last season, the Pirates were criticized for only having six or seven players in their on-court rotation. This year, having more players on the bench could make the Pirates a more complete team.”It’s great to look down the bench and see guys that you know when they come in the game that they’re going to keep the same level of play,” Garcia said.The Pirates open up their 2009-2010 campaign with an exhibition on Friday against Carlton University, with the start of their non-conference schedule coming against St. Peter’s on Nov. 13.”Our feelings on the Charmin-softness of the non-conference slate and its potential ramifications are well known,” NJ Hoops Haven blogger Jerry Carino, who frequently covers the Pirates, said in his blog back in September.The Pirates will only leave the Prudential Center for three games in the first two months of the season. They travel to Monmouth and Cornell in November, then Cancun during the first week of January to play Virginia Tech.Garcia does not expect the team’s non-conference schedule to make a difference in the team’s postseason run.”We have a bunch of opportunities to get signature wins,” Garcia said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of non-conference wins you have, if you don’t go out there and win in the Big East it’s not going to make a difference.”The Pirates’ first seven conference games are against teams that are ahead of them in the pre-season coaches poll. It is not until they play at South Florida on Jan. 28 that the team will face a lesser ranked team.The Hall will look to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Gonzalez’s three year tenure as head coach.”This is the best team that I’ve had at Seton Hall,” Gonzalez said. “I think that we’re going to be a dangerous team. Come January, February and March, I don’t think teams will want to play us.”Pope said it best when asked about the team’s expectations for the season.”I expect us to show the world that it’s ‘showtime at the Rock,'” Pope said. “We are going to try and make this a magical year.”Tim LeCras can be reached at email@example.com.