“My goal for the season is to win every game. That’s what I want. I don’t like losing. I want to win every game. For the team, I hope we win every time and we never fight and we’re always together. We’re going to be good this year.”
That was what Seton Hall big man Angel Delgado told me back in October.
That was at the program’s media day, a time when things were very different for the Pirates. The hype surrounding the team was unprecedented, the recruiting class the best since 2001. A young core of freshman, led by All-American Isaiah Whitehead, and some savvy upper-class accomplices were going to put Seton Hall basketball back on the map. Hopes in South Orange, N.J. had never been higher.
For a while, Seton Hall stuck to the script that was written for them by a hungry fan base. SHU dominated early on, starting the year 7-0 and ending non-conference play with a 10-2 record. However, it seemed like disaster had struck when Whitehead suffered a stress fracture in his foot that would sideline him to start Big East play. With then-No.15 St. John’s and No. 6 Villanova on the docket to start the conference schedule, expectations began to cool.
But then Seton Hall beat the ranked Red Storm. They beat the big, bad Wildcats, a team now vying for a No. 1 national seed heading into the NCAA Tournament. They did it all without their star player, the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year selection. People were lining up on Wall Street to take stock in Seton Hall hoops.
The team had won almost every game, notably ones against formidable opponents. Everything was in sync with Delgado’s preseason plan.
Those two wins earned the Hall a spot in The AP Top 25; No. 19 to be exact. The Pirates then lost a tough one on the road to a streaky Xavier team, but hey, they were due for a bad day. Excitement was reestablished when Sterling Gibbs knocked down a buzzer-beating three to oust Creighton on the road their next time out.
A tough stretch of three straight losses would then ensue; the Pirates would fall to No. 21 and then 24 before getting knocked out of the national rankings. However, the team had given themselves plenty of room for error. At this point they would have to try to not make the Big Dance.
Well, try they did.
Seton Hall would win another two games before going on a deflating six-game losing streak. The blue and white finished the year losing a miserable nine of their last 10 games, including Wednesday night’s 78-56 massacre dealt at the hands of Matt Carlino and Marquette. Once considered one of the 20 best teams in the country, Seton Hall most likely will not even receive an NIT bid this postseason.
“We became very fragile in the second half of the year, which sometimes happens,” head coach Kevin Willard explained after the loss at Madison Square Garden.
“We were on a high,” Gibbs, a junior, said of the season. “It took some bad turns. I knew we had a couple of tough breaks, guys getting fatigued, fighting through injuries, fighting through different things.”
It is hard to say exactly where the Hall took a turn for the worst. The team had trouble adjusting their play when Whitehead returned to action at the end of January. Gibbs had become the team’s unquestionable leader and go-to scorer in his absence and there were clearly chemistry issues throughout the remainder of the season. A near-fight broke out between the two guards during a timeout versus Georgetown on February 10. Sophomore Jaren Sina, a starter averaging over 30 minutes a game, abruptly announced he was transferring a day later. Seton Hall was imploding. The ship was sinking.
“We lost a very important key to the team at the start of Big East season,” Willard said Wednesday, talking about Whitehead. “I thought the team did a great job of fighting through losing somebody, and when that piece came back it was very hard to readjust roles.”
“I tried my best,” Sina told the Asbury Park Press at the time of his transfer. “I think I was a good teammate. I’ve always been positive. I’ve always worked hard. I always gave it 100 percent. It’s not a good situation for me right now.”
Whatever the problem was, Seton Hall was losing. They were fighting internally. The team was not sticking together. Delgado’s plans were falling apart.
Shortly after Sina’s departure, the fight spread outside the locker room. Gibbs punched Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono on Feb. 16, warranting a two-game suspension. The Pirates’ ship was fully submerged.
The Pirates had reached a new low.
Looking back, Seton Hall’s season can be summed up with three words – talent, hype and disappointment. Once floating on Cloud 9, the Pirates crashed after a long free fall from grace. The first round Big East Tournament exit on Wednesday, brought on by a team that won just four conference games no less, leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those involved with Seton Hall. Fans are calling for Kevin Willard’s head. Many are worried that more transfers will come. Some are just tired of watching their Pirates let them down and want to abandon their fandom.
While some of that may be a little much, it is reasonable to question what is coming next for the Pirates.
It is almost certain that Willard will be back next year, whether those in the stands want him to be or not. As for players, the only departures as of now are seniors Stephane Manga, Haralds Karlis and Brandon Mobley. Gibbs, Whitehead and Delgado, those people were most concerned with, have all pledged their allegiance to the program.
As for what is to come, Seton Hall does have two recruits already lined up for the 2015-16 campaign. Michael Nzei, who sat on the bench all year, will be eligible and should provide a spark to the frontcourt if nothing else. Whitehead, Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez will all have a year under their belt. Hopefully experience brings more maturity and better results.
“When you have as many young guys who never really had to go through what they’ve went through, playing great competition every night, playing older stronger kids every night, I just think experience counts,” Willard said Wednesday.
Whitehead is still considered an NBA prospect and Delgado, who was named the Big East Rookie of the Year, made a strong claim to being one himself in his freshman season. Gibbs was contending for Big East Player of the Year before all of the nonsense started. The point is, things could and should get better.
Sadly, it is an old and tired and even frustrating cliché in sports, but there is always next year for Seton Hall.
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GPhillips2727.