In many ways, the 2018-19 Seton Hall men’s basketball team embodies the “Hazard Zet Forward” motto.
The slogan, which sits proudly on Seton Hall’s school crest, translates to “Whatever the peril, ever forward” in English. The gritty roster put forth by Kevin Willard this season has exemplified this to a tee, as the Pirates advanced to the Big East Championship game with a dramatic, 81-79 win over Marquette on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The win puts Seton Hall on a four-game winning streak, which includes two defeats over the Golden Eagles, a regular season finale victory over Villanova, and a decisive Big East Tournament win over Georgetown. Making it to the big stage on Saturday night was not supposed to happen for the Pirates. In the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll, they were picked to finish eighth in the conference, ahead only of Creighton and DePaul. Although it will never be known or revealed publicly, the rating certainly had to provide some bulletin board material in the locker room.
All along, though, the team, led by unanimous All-Big East selection Myles Powell, knew what it was capable of and what it had to do to grind away and get results.
“Like I’ve been saying to the media all year, the best thing about this team is we’re fighters,” Powell said following the Marquette victory on Friday. “Our backs have been against the wall the whole time and we just came together as brothers and had each other’s backs.”
The fighting mentality that comes along with the preseason rating has been clear all year.
“We definitely expected it because we lost the four seniors,” Myles Cale said at Big East Media Day in October. “We’ll just take it on the chin and do what we have to do.”
There was certainly no shortage of beatings to the chin and to the morale over the course of the season to lead the Pirates to this point. From a dismantling by Nebraska on Nov. 14 to a seemingly backbreaking double-overtime loss to Georgetown on March 2, and everything in between, the cards always appeared to not be in Seton Hall’s favor. Still, against everything, the Pirates find themselves awaiting a rematch of the 2016 Big East Championship with Villanova.
Willard and everyone associated with Seton Hall knows how that one ended – and the Pirates are hoping that this year follows the same tune. Conveniently for Willard, he sees many similarities between the two teams when looking back on the parallel experiences.
“This team reminds me of  because they’re young,” Willard said on Friday night. “We play really hard, we’re scrappy. We’re led by a phenomenal player just like we were with [Isaiah Whitehead]. [Powell is] as good as any player I’ve ever coached.”
Depth down the stretch for Willard has subsequently helped the team regain some of its magic, even if none of the current players were around for the last Big East Championship win in 2016. Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili, and Jared Rhoden have all heated up down the stretch, and Romaro Gill and Anthony Nelson have proven to be perfect complimentary pieces.
In order to beat Phil Booth and Villanova, the group will have to work harder than ever before. But, again, with their backs against the wall, the Pirates will be ready to embrace the challenge. Despite being young, the team has lived up to its “scrappy” trademark, and it has shown that no opponent will intimidate them.
In the Marquette semi-final matchup on Friday night, the Pirates were assessed a number of technical fouls, including one to Powell, one to Quincy McKnight, two to Mamukelashvili, and even one to Willard. Amidst all the chaos, however, one player who mixed it up walked away without a technical – Nelson. The freshman stepped in to talk to Sacar Anim after a hard foul to Powell, and in the process, he showed his teammates and the league that the Pirates, regardless of experience, are willing to battle.
Even though the “Tough City Kid” mantra was put in the rear-view mirror when Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, and Ismael Sanogo departed, the feeling associated with it still lives on.
If the Pirates want to overcome the Wildcats on Saturday evening and re-claim Big East glory, they will have to stick to their roots that they have been following all season. It has been a long, winding road to this point, and it is a story that it not over by any means, but Seton Hall now has a unique opportunity laying in front of them, and a chance to scrap and claw its way tearing down that ill-fated eighth place prediction of season’s start.
Kevin Kopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KMKTNF.