Meaningful February basketball is back in South Orange. Seven games remain in the Big East regular season, and the Seton Hall men’s basketball team currently boasts a 17-6 overall record with a 7-4 record in conference play.
Excitement around the Pirates this late in the season feels strange. Not since 2011-12 have they played true meaningful basketball in February. Back then, the team was 19-9 and coming off a win over then-No. 9 Georgetown. Two games remained - home against Rutgers and an away contest at DePaul. Analysts predicted the Pirates would secure an NCAA Tournament bid if they could put away those two sub-par teams. They didn’t. Rutgers outlasted the Blue and White, 77-72, in overtime, and DePaul dismantled the team on its way to an 86-58 victory.
Seton Hall finished the regular season 19-11 and was forced to settle for an NIT bid, where the team eventually lost in the second round to Massachusetts, 77-67. That was the last whiff of postseason play South Orange smelled. Until this year. Three weeks ago, I wrote a column proclaiming that this year’s version of the Pirates held the talent and maturity to avoid another epic collapse. Since then, the Pirates have gone 4-2, with their two losses coming against No. 5 Xavier and No. 4 Villanova. The span includes a current four-game winning streak. Watching the Pirates continue their maturation and elevated play over the last three weeks, I am willing to take my prediction a step further. The Pirates will play in the NCAA Tournament this year. 2006 is the last season that the program donned a nice pair of dancing shoes. That was back in the days when Donald Copeland and Kelly Whitney led the Pirate charge. Ten years later, a deep roster anchored by Isaiah Whitehead and Angel Delgado is pushing the team toward March.
Over the course of this four-game streak, Whitehead is averaging 19.5 points per game to go along with 5.2 assists and five rebounds. Delgado’s double-double streak matches the win streak at four, while averaging 16.5 points per game to go along with 13.7 rebounds a contest. Both players collected Met Player of the Week honors, back- to-back, over the past two weeks. With the top two recruits of the hailed 2014 freshman class playing at an elite level together, the Pirates can bank on finishing their final seven games with the 3-4 record college hoops analysts are saying they need to book their tournament ticket.
With the way the team is playing right now, 3-4 is beyond expected. In fact, it could be viewed as a huge disappointment. The schedule holds two tough matchups - home contests against No. 20 Providence on Feb. 25 and against No. 5 Xavier three days later. With a new rise in fan support and growing crowds at The Rock each night, the Pirates have a legitimate home-court advantage now on any given day in Newark.
Fan support, an elite defense and standout individual performances are the perfect recipe for success. The time is now for the Pirates. In just about a month, the team will be dancing in the big one, a feat that this time last year seemed almost impossible. Dennis Chambers is a journalism major from Mullica Hill, N.J. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DennisChambers_.