Sterling Gibbs was slumping.
Seton Hall’s junior guard was almost an afterthought entering the 2014-15 season. Scoff if you want, but when the media focused on the Pirates’ prospects for coach Kevin Willard’s fifth season, all talk centered on the Hall’s sterling freshmen class, a group anchored by Isaiah Whitehead, the latest in a long line of Brooklyn backcourt prodigies.
Consider: Gibbs was the squad’s leading returning scorer, but at the Big East’s media day last October, Whitehead was the program’s face and Gibbs wasn’t even there.
Gibbs understandably had a chip on his shoulder. He didn’t direct these slights at Willard or his teammates, but he didn’t try to conceal them either during the non-conference slate, and carried that same attitude into conference play — Gibbs averaged 19 ppg with an effective field goal percentage of 53% through his first four Big East games.
But once opponents tweaked how they defended Gibbs during pick- and- roll possessions, the slump began and cascaded into a three- game losing streak. When the Pirates faced Marquette in late January, it was a season-defining contest.
At first glance, that fact was lost on both Seton Hall and Gibbs; the latter had just five points during the first twenty minutes and the former led by only four at halftime.
Those two slumps weighed on Gibbs, because the guard single-handedly sparked a run in the second half. He scored 16 points in the initial seven minutes, assisted on 10 other, and dragged the Pirates to a 14-point lead and, ultimately, the win.
Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski was blunt in the post game press conference:
Marquettes Steve Wojo: “Sterling Gibbs is one of the best guards in the United States” #shbb
— Tyler R. Tynes (@TylerRickyTynes) January 29, 2015
Despite media proclamations about how the Hall’s newcomers would be the catalyst for an NCAA tournament appearance, Gibbs was the team’s most crucial element, which is why entering the offseason, Willard stressed more consistency from his junior. The ups and downs that plagued his first season couldn’t happen in 2015. “Coach said I needed to be a better leader on and off court,” Gibbs told me. “I needed to make sure everything was on point, and show young guys the routes.”
Gibbs is part of arguably the most underrated college basketball family in the Ken Pom era (spanning from 2002-03). His brother, Ashton, had an offensive rating of over 100 for each of his four seasons at Pitt, and made 41% of his threes. His brother, Temple, is an top 60 ESPN recruit in the 2016 class, and Sterling, while impressive in his sophomore year after transferring from Temple, needed to cement his spot within the triumvirate. “My dad, he doesn’t want to coach, but he is one of the best trainers that no one has on their staff,” Ashton said.
Sterling’s summer workouts were multi-tiered. After watching videos with assistant coach Shaheen Holloway, Sterling realized he over penetrated far too often in 2014, and while his aggressiveness meant extra free throws, he also was getting his shot swatted too often, effectively wasting a possession. The junior is now drawing nearly five fouls per 40 minutes, down from roughly seven a season ago. “I worked hard this summer and so far this season,” Gibbs told me, “trying not to go into big men. Driving the lane to try and make something happen that wasn’t there.”
After the Pirates downed St. John’s in their Big East season opener, a game where Gibbs scored 25 points and scorched the Johnnies’ zone defense from deep (five of seven from beyond the arc), Willard said in the post-game press conference, “He worked as hard as anybody this summer. Sterling is playing at a level that I envisioned he’d play at all the time.”
Gibbs redistributed those field goals at the rim to the perimeter, which would have been an unsound strategy in 2014 but it has been especially effective this season. “I talk to Sterling a lot, and tell him the strengths and weaknesses I see during his games,” his older brother, Ashton, said. “He could always shoot, but for some reason, he would shy away from opener jumpers.”
Ashton told his younger brother that when opponents went under screens, Sterling rewarded the tactic by driving the basket rather than dribbling into his jump shot. During Sterling’s July and August work-outs, where he would drill daily with his father, Sterling focused on shooting 1,000 shots per day. “I told him I took 1,000 shots a day, at least,” said Ashton, “and that’s how I was successful at Pitt.” He also mixed in work outs with friends like NBA-bound Kyle Anderson, specifically focusing on stepping into his shot.
“I did a lot of my workouts at Seton Hall, but I was also able to go back to my roots and work out with the guys, like Kyle, that I did when I was young,” Sterling said. “A lot of my work this summer was pulling up off the pick and then use that pull up to open up better driving lanes.” Gibbs’ improved shooting goes beyond his Big East effective field goal percentage of 52% — he is converting 1.01 points when he dribbles off a pick into a jumper, up from .81 in 2014.
“I didn’t shoot the ball with confidence last year,” Gibbs explained. “I put the work in this year and so far I’ve been decent.”
It also has helped to have significant depth in the backcourt, a luxury coach Willard lacked the past five seasons. Sophomore Jaren Sina added a wrinkle to the offense by directing play-calling while on the floor, a tactic which allows Gibbs to move full off the ball as well as a slight breather. “Jaren is able to examine the defense and know immediately what type of play to call,” Gibbs said.
When paired with Khadeen Carrington or Whitehead, Seton Hall’s offense is reminiscent of the guard-dominated lineups Villanova rolled out several years ago, a comparison that is apt when the Pirates are in transition. That focus to refine Gibbs’ jumpshot is most evident when SHU is running – he leads the team in field goal attempts in transition, per Hoop-Math.com, and has the highest effective field goal percentage, converting nearly 50% of his threes on the break.
Ashton watches almost all of his younger brother’s games, and along with their father, offers advice, critiques, or even motivational texts. “I talk to Sterling a lot. There are so many other good guards on the team this year, and since Sterling isn’t a one dimensional player, he can play off the ball and get more open shots,” Ashton said.
There is no question Gibbs’ offense has elevated the guard into the conference’s player of the year conversation, but based on recent consecutive losses to DePaul, Marquette, and Georgetown, defeats that dropped the Pirates to 5-7 in the Big East, can the league’s POY come from a team still struggling to continue its early success?
In particular, the Georgetown loss, an embarrassing 19-point defeat at home, underlines the struggles this team, even with Gibbs’ outstanding output, still faces. A lazy narrative of chemistry issues following Whitehead’s return to the lineup has been offered, but the explanation is more simple: the team is integrating four freshmen to the rotation, newcomers who have never played a full college slate are now being asked to fill large roles on a team whose motto might as well be, “Huge Potential.” There are bound to be some growing pains, evidenced by Brandon Mobley’s comments following the Marquette loss.
Unfortunately for Willard and his staff, those pains are popping up well into conference play, rather than December.
So can the Hall rebound from nearly consecutive three-game losing streaks? Whitehead will surely help: the freshman has the flair for the dramatic, and often jaw-dropping, pass, and he eases defensive pressure from Gibbs even when Whitehead isn’t making shots. Carrington, who has now been thoroughly scouted, will adjust, and the shift of Sina to sixth man might be the spark the squad needs when there is an offensive lull.
Willard has mentioned his team will too often overly rely on Gibbs’ scoring and passively approach their own, and opponents, like Butler and Xavier (SHU is 1-3 versus both teams) have deflated the Pirates’ offense by fighting over picks set for Gibbs while also flat-hedging the bigs (knowing the big, most often Angel Delgado, isn’t in the best position to catch a pass while rolling to the bucket).
Gibbs has improved his pick-and-roll defensive recognition (which is nearly 30% of his offense), but there are moments where it is an issue. After an early January loss to Butler, Gibbs commented, “I’m starting to adjust to how teams guard me in pick and roll situations.”
Seton Hall’s upcoming slate is undoubtedly burdensome. The team essentially doesn’t get a breather the remainder of the Big East season, facing Providence twice, and both the Hoyas and St. John’s on the road. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi most recently had the Pirates dancing, and while that will likely change once his updated bracket is released, the Pirates have shown the mettle of a tourney team.
Any postseason and ranking discussions are entirely due to Gibbs’ progression and growth, developments that began during those summer workout sessions at the Y with his father and continued into conference play as he digests the game at a higher level “He’s just become a very smart basketball player,” said Willard, “and he’s starting to mature a little bit and recognize what the defense is giving him.”
Matt Giles writes about the Big East and other conferences for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter at @HudsonGiles.