Ball security, Quincy McKnight key reasons for Seton Hall’s late season success

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It wasn’t long ago that Seton Hall was a turnover happy team. The backbone to the Pirates’ post-season push? Quincy McKnight, and less turnovers.

Seton Hall currently sits 103rd nationally in turnover percentage, which is slightly above average and won’t turn any heads.

But that wasn’t always the case.

22, 18, 19, 22, 19.

These are some of the turnover counts that Seton Hall put up in league games this year. All losses. The Pirates still rank last in conference only turnover percentage.

Going into games, Pirates fans were practically bracing for impact like some of the courtside fans that had to dodge errant passes during some of the Hall’s Big East games.

Then something changed and Seton Hall won four straight after a 19-turnover double overtime loss to Georgetown that nearly shut the door on their N.C.A.A. dreams.

10, 9, 10, 8, 7.

That’s good for 8.8 turnovers a game compared to the 14.75 the team averaged per game over the prior 16.

Seton Hall went from single digit turnover counts once in sixteen to three times in five.

Enter stage right: Quincy McKnight.

A transfer from Sacred Heart, McKnight was much maligned by fans for his less than perfect ball handling for much of this season.

And some of it was justified, he did cough it up 14 times during the three-game losing streak last month.

In the five games since, McKnight has a cool 19:10 assist:turnover ratio and scored 18 in what I’d say was an MVP performance against Marquette in the Big East Tournament semifinals.

That doesn’t include all his dogged work on defense, of course.

Let’s not forget that the team’s leading scapegoat was pigeon-holed into a position that wasn’t entirely natural to him when he set foot on campus two years ago.

But this year was always about growth and player development, so you’ve got to like where McKnight has brought his game from the beginning of the year to present.

“It didn’t really change my style.” said McKnight yesterday of the positional shift.

“High school, my last year in prep school, I played point guard a lot, and then I got to Sacred Heart my freshman year and I played a little bit, but I wasn’t coached as well as coach Willard has. We didn’t have as good a coaching staff as we have now.

“It’s just preparation. The year I sat out (last year), I worked a lot with Coach Holloway, Coach Willard and everybody just worked with me. And then Coach Skinn came in this summer, Guys like that, and they just kept working with me. And Coach Skinn, he’s a great point guard. He played professionally, he’s a great point guard, great mentor for me.”

It was certainly a team effort to clean up mistakes, see: back-up point guard Anthony Nelson dished nine assists to one turnover over the last five games.

But in a strange way, this Seton Hall team seems to go as McKnight goes just as much as it feeds off main man Myles Powell, who also cleaned up some of his turnovers.

A more efficient, methodical, passionate approach to the game as we’ve seen over the past couple weeks, or a less focused, “loosey goosey” outlook that relies on the team locking in over the last ten minutes for a frantic comeback.

“I don’t know the word to explain it, just being able to adapt. We’ve got Myles, a guy who everybody knows can score the ball, and my guys, they just kept with me and just told me keep pushing and just fight really, and that’s really what it was,” said McKnight of what helped him switch roles this year.

“I’m a good player and I think I’m real versatile, so I just focused on being a distributor over the summer and just working on everything, and I think that’s really why I’m playing the way I am.”

“I think the most important development for Q is I think he’s found a nice balance about when to score and when to be a facilitator,” said Kevin Willard, who isn’t at his first combo-guard-to-point-guard rodeo.

“And it’s hard. He works as hard as anyone I’ve seen on the defensive end. He takes a lot of pride in it. He takes up the challenge that he’s had to play against Markus Howard, Phil Booth, the list goes on of the guys he’s had to guard. I love the fact that he accepts those challenges and he looks forward to it.

“Offensively, I think he’s really grown at the point guard spot, and he’s a major reason why we’re here.”

Should Seton Hall can string another pair of games together where they turn the ball over ten or less times and should Quincy McKnight put together another 15-point, five-assist, four-steal game like he had against Kentucky in December — but without the turnovers — then the Pirates might just find themselves in the Sweet 16.

If recent history is any indicator, another smart game on the offensive end gives Seton Hall their best shot of doing something special.