That time of year for the men’s basketball team is bouncing into town again. We all know the story. We remember what happened like it was yesterday (or just last year, whichever you prefer). A hot start to the season, two back-to-back wins against ranked opponents Villanova and St. John’s, and, eventually, a Top 25 ranking. Then, just as fast as the jubilation had swept through South Orange, it was gone. A year ago, the Pirates finished their season 4-13 after those two big wins. That dropped them from their peak No. 19 ranking all the way to a 16-15 record with no postseason play. But this story isn’t about last year. It isn’t about the monumental collapse that garnered national headlines. No, this chapter of the Pirates’ story is about a team riddled with talented sophomores and veteran leadership sprinkled throughout. This story is about how a group of young men experienced nationwide embarrassment and have responded in a way many questioned if they could.
As they stand, before the completion of this week’s matchup with No. 4 Villanova, the Pirates are 13-4 (3-2) coming off a win against No. 12 Providence on the road. That was the program’s first road win against a ranked opponent since it took down No. 9 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome during the 2010-11 season.
Upsetting Providence came on the heels of two straight losses—a nine-point defeat by then-ranked No. 11 Villanova at the Pavilion and an 82-67 shellacking by Creighton. Last year’s team would have crumbled at Providence. Good thing this isn’t last year’s team. Graduate-senior guard Derrick Gordon called a players-only meeting immediately following the debacle against Creighton. Something of that nature did not - but probably should have - happen last year. The contents of the Gordon-led meeting were not released, but off the bat it shows that the veterans on this team are more concerned about meshing with the young talent than last year’s were.
Most of this success lies within the growth of the sophomores on the court. Star guard Isaiah Whitehead has developed into a nicely fashioned point guard, averaging 4.5 assists per game and dropping at least seven dimes on six occasions this season. The emergence of sophomore forward Ismael Sanogo and redshirt-freshman Michael Nzei, who have been a great complement to frontcourt mate Angel Delgado, has pushed the team’s interior defense and rebounding to the next level. Khadeen Carrington has positioned himself as the team’s No. 2 scoring option, averaging 14.5 points per game. Desi Rodriguez has elevated his game (quite literally) to a level where rim-rocking dunks are always right around the corner. Lest we forget the man who steers this Pirate ship, though. Head coach Kevin Willard has taken a step in the right direction himself. He used tough love this season in benching Rodriguez the entire second half of a tight game with DePaul after words were exchanged between the forward and coaches. Willard has shown that in order to avoid repeating last season’s mess, he needed to change as well.
The talent is there. The leadership is there. The coaching is there.
All the makings of a team that wants to play come March are there. Now it is up to the Pirates to prevent history from repeating itself. Dennis Chambers is journalism major from Mullica Hill, N.J.. He can be reached at dennis.cham- bers@ student.shu.edu or on Twitter @ Dennis.Chambers_.