Is this the season Kevin Willard leads Seton Hall to an NCAA tournament appearance?
Willard was a rising non-BCS conference coach with ten years on the bench alongside Rick Pitino when Seton Hall tapped the then-Iona coach to usher the struggling Big East program back into the limelight. Over the past seventeen years, the Pirates had won twenty games just twice, and Willard’s task was simple: Get SHU back into the NCAA tournament.
While he did lead the Hall to an NIT appearance (and a 20-win season) in 2012, it is clear Willard has struggled to build momentum. Last year’s squad should have finished among the top half of the Big East, but lapses – both on and off the court — and injuries undermined the team’s performance, and the veteran-laden unit (with a potential player of the year candidate) stumbled to a 6-12 Big East record.
To be clear, Willard isn’t on the hot seat. He received a contract extension in 2013 that is believed to last until the end of the decade, and he has settled a program that was in turmoil during Bobby Gonzalez’s tenure. But Willard knows he needs to get to the NCAA tournament, and so he made sure he took the right steps on the recruiting trail to land the most highly touted class since the Griffin/Barrett/Toney-El trio.
Oliver Antigua, who was on Manhattan’s staff, joined Willard’s bench shortly after Angel Delgado, a forward with whom Antigua had a long-standing relationship, committed to SHU (he has since left New Jersey for South Florida). Dwayne ‘Tiny’ Morton, who, as Whitehead’s high school coach, shepherded the guard and his family through the recruiting process, announced shortly after Whitehead committed that it would be his last season at Brooklyn’s celebrated Lincoln High (he recently joined the Seton Hall staff as well).
However, while these freshmen (who are just two of the squad’s six newbies) are integral pieces – both Delgado and Whitehead will start and see significant minutes immediately – the Hall’s success depends on the returning players, a core that when paired with these first-year players, could form one of the Big East’s most exciting offenses.
Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs were both first-year players at the Hall in 2014, and though each had promising inaugural seasons, some fine-tuning is needed. Even though Sina was a starter for much of the season, he wasn’t really expected to offensively contribute. His percentage of shots taken — 13.5% — was lower than any other starter, and he was basically required to spread the floor with his perimeter shooting. Fortunately, Sina’s recruiting rep – a knock-down three point shooter – proved true, and the 6’2” guard made 38% of his threes. The Pirates have lost more than 50% of their minutes, but with this offensively prodigious recruiting class, Sina’s role in the offense might remain the same, so the guard needs to improve his efficiency while on the court, which includes his ball-handling and production within the arc have to improve.
When the team wasn’t in transition, Sina’s game consisted nearly entirely around the arc, and perhaps the most illustrative stat is Sina’s pick-and-roll attempts – when he pulled up for a jumper, he scored 1.6 points, but when he got into the lane, that tumbled to .83. Since Seton Hall doesn’t really have a legitimate post presence – Delgado will likely get most of his buckets from offensive rebounds – Sina will have to improve finishing around the rim.
Sina’s turnover rate wasn’t ideal (23%), but as a sophomore, that will probably decrease as he becomes more familiar with Willard’s system and the different defensive schemes he faces on a nightly basis.
No other guard arguably benefited more from the NCAA’s altered officiating guidelines than Sterling Gibbs. The 6’2” junior possesses a shifty quickness that he uses to slither into the paint and carom off opposing defenders, drawing seven fouls per 40 minutes. And since Gibbs possesses the team’s best mid-range game – per Hoop-Math.com, while only 13% of his attempts were two-point jumpers, he made 42% of those attempts, which tops all returnees – he is such a difficult match-up because even if he misses, there is a fair chance he is going to shoot free throws.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Gibbs lowers his attempts from beyond the arc; he took 90 a year ago (34%), and he might be better served by shifting his offensive focus to his true strengths: Getting to the line or connecting from up to 15 feet from the basket.
Willard was adamant during media day that the team won’t up the tempo immediately …
… But that is hard to believe. The combination of Gibbs, Sina, Whitehead, and the rest of the backcourt (particularly Carrington) is built to fast-break. Willard’s teams, at Iona and Seton Hall, have typically used 65 or so possessions, but with this guard-heavy lineup, the Pirates should be able to exploit their versatility in the open court. This will also feed Willard’s penchant for building teams around the three-point shot – Seton Hall has ranked within the nation’s top fifty of three-point attempts percentage the past two seasons under Willard, and Sina will gladly let fly from deep, as will Whitehead and Carrington, who were noted marksmen in high school.
While the team possesses a deep backcourt, the two X-factors are frontcourt related. One is Brandon Mobley, a wing who epitomizes Seton Hall’s potential. At 6’9”, Mobley is extremely efficient without the ball (1.40 points per cut), the perfect Pirate to find moving about the halfcourt. There were too many times last season, though, when Mobley disappeared; his double-digit scoring efforts were followed up by meager outputs the next game. Mobley spent this offseason working on both his confidence and conditioning, perhaps finally realizing that no matter how many shots he misses, he still has the necessary physical tools to dominate a game. The backcourt tantalizes with potential, but Mobley is truly the key for a contending Seton Hall squad.
Interior inexperience is the team’s other concern. Seton Hall isn’t lacking height, but Mobley is the only returnee above 6’6”. Delgado will anchor the frontcourt, and based on reports, could lead the conference in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Stephane Manga will see more minutes than he did in 2014, simply because of his familiarity with the system, and he could prove to be solid on the defensive glass, but the rest of SHU’s bigs (nearly all newcomers) were not highly ranked recruits.
It is worth nothing that because the point distribution will be largely spread amongst the backcourt, the Pirate forwards need to do little more than defend and crash the boards. Chier Ajou, who stands 7’1”, did spend a year at Northwestern, but rarely left the bench at the Big Ten school. The lynchpin might be Rashed Anthony, a 6’9” freshman who redshirted last season. He won’t start, but if Willard wants to go with a big lineup, which might be the Pirates’ best chance to field a staunch defense, Anthony could be paired with Mobley and Delgado on the interior.
Ultimately, as most teams’ seasons progress, defense is the key indicator of whether said team can make a postseason run. During Big East play, the Hall’s defense wasn’t bad – 1.07 points per possession – but it was far from stingy. The increased size will help lockdown scoring attempts at the rim. The squad allowed teams to convert 52.1% of their twos, which ranked eighth in league play, and the combination of easy buckets and free throws — the Pirates fouled quite a bit, and were unlucky their opponents made 75% of those shots — hamstrung SHU’s success.
Seton Hall particularly struggled defending late in the shot clock. According to Hoop-Math.com, the Pirates defense fell apart in the final fourteen seconds. Either off a made bucket, a defensive board, or a steal, SHU’s transition defense was adequate, but the squad wasn’t ready for their opponent’s alternate play calls, and they simply couldn’t defend within the arc.
Locking down the paint will help a bunch, and if the Hall can control second-chance opportunities and close off the interior, Willard and his staff have a team that can contend for an NCAA tournament bid.
Matt Giles covers the Big East conference, as well as other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter @hudsongiles.