Seton Hall is just 17 miles from Madison Square Garden, and the majority of its players are either from the five boroughs or the surrounding Tri-State Area. Still, something about the Pirates seems foreign.
Seton Hall isn't supposed to be this good. Of the 10 teams in the Big East, they've been to the NCAA Tournament less than anybody else by a decent margin -- they've had half as many trips as punching bag DePaul. Their fans aren't supposed to be this loud -- at past Big East Tournaments I've been to, they've been outdrawn by schools hundreds of miles away.
Isaiah Whitehead, the star guard who made every conceivable play in the final 30 seconds of a win over Creighton, shocked almost everybody by even choosing the Pirates. With a snarl on his face, Whitehead has developed into the stud many hoped he would be.
There are the oohs when he stops on a dime in transition to hit a pull-up, leaving a Bluejay defender flying. There are gasps when he grabs a critical offensive board off a free throw with 25 seconds to go, only to collapse on his butt from an ungodly height. ("I'm sore, but I'm from Brooklyn," Whitehead says after the game.) And there are the cheers when he makes a huge block, disappears for a few seconds, then comes back and seals the game with a rebound.
A five-star recruit, Whitehead's college decision baffled everybody at first. Then, a few months later, Seton Hall announced the hiring of Whitehead's high school coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton from Lincoln High, the same school where Stephon Marbury and Lance Stephenson went. In the NCAA's eyes, it's perfectly legal to hire a player's high school coach as an assistant, but still many rolled their eyes at Seton Hall for the package deal.
Whitehead's first year was kind of a disaster. The Pirates started out 12-2, but quickly began spiraling into hell, finishing the season with 13 losses in 17 games. The team dealt with massive internal strife, much of which was blamed on Whitehead's selfishness. He even sent some sniping tweets. NBA scouting service DraftExpress wrote that Whitehead's freshman year "went about as poorly as he could have imagined from both an individual and team perspective." After the season, Morton went back to high school, causing more controversy along the way.
This year, things have been drastically better. They started out 12-2 again, but instead of collapsing, the Pirates went 12-6 in conference play. Last year, Whitehead was the poster boy for the overhyped immature freshman. Now, he's guiding his team to new heights, transformed both as a player and a teammate.
"He's done this all year," coach Kevin Willard says. "Nothing he does surprises me."
It's not just Whitehead. Angel Delgado was a four-star recruit. Khadeen Carrington had the best game against Creighton, dropping 27. Coach Willard knows the team is young -- he calls them "year-old puppies" -- but the difference in maturity from last year is there.
"You've seen my offense. It's not great," says Willard. "It's because of these players."
It's also worth noting that Seton Hall has the first, and to date, only openly gay player in Division I basketball history. Derrick Gordon, who came out while at UMass, is a fifth-year senior transfer from UMass. Many believed (and some still do) that the mere presence of a gay player would destroy a team from the inside-out. Seton Hall is proof that this belief was a homophobic falsehood.
Last year, the Pirates were the image of dysfunction. This year, they added a proud gay man, and that dysfunction is gone. Gordon has been praised for his leadership role as the team's only senior. He's the one who called a players-only meeting before an upset at Providence. Nobody on the team seems to care that he's gay. His sexuality isn't a distraction -- the only time it comes up at all seems to be when writers like me point out that everybody is fine with it.
"He's their senior. You can tell he's added some things to that team from a year ago." says Creighton coach Greg McDermott, completely unprompted. "I think his maturity. For him to come off the bench and provide a steadying influence to that team really is a credit to him."
Seton Hall is almost certainly headed to its first NCAA Tournament since 2006, and gunning for its first Big East title since 1993. This is new territory for everybody, from the players to Willard, who has never made the dance at Seton Hall or in his prior job at Iona.
Yet somehow, they seem perfectly comfortable heading into uncharted waters. After all, they are Pirates.
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