NEWARK – We saw shades of new-look defensive pressure from No. 23 Seton Hall during the preseason and it turned the tide in their 90-68 season-opening win over Fairleigh Dickinson.
Kevin Willard has hinted at it and quasi-promised full court press looks for a few seasons now without it materializing.
This season’s unprecedented depth appears to be the key to unlock that bag of tricks.
“We came out early and we got a lead but their three-quarters court press really sped us up and the turnovers followed,” explained Fairleigh Dickinson boss Greg Herenda after the loss.
“Their pressure — we have a freshmen point guard — but their pressure defense sped us up and they’ll speed other teams up … their quickness, their size, their experience, the biggest difference [compared to last year] is they can be a faster more athletic defensive team.”
Herenda’s team, which was missing all-NEC guard Darian Anderson (stress fracture) who he labelled as “our Aaron Rodgers”, controlled the tempo early and jumped out to a 12-5 lead that left Prudential Center feeling uneasy.
Following the first media timeout, Kevin Willard then switched to an aggressive defensive stance that immediately yielded five Knights turnovers over a two-minute span.
Sensing blood in the water, Seton Hall pounced, leaving a 20-3 run in their wake that provided ample cushion to work with for the remainder.
“That was because they had a freshman point guard and [Darian] Anderson was not playing,” said Willard of the defensive look.
“The goal was to speed them up … Knowing they had no Anderson, pressure him, speed him up a little bit, get them worn out, that was the plan today.
“I do that in all honesty, game-to-game. If I feel we have an advantage by being a little more aggressive [I’ll do it] — if I feel they have two little quick guards who are just going to wear my guys out, there’s no point in doing that. It’s a game-by-game thing.”
While that may be true, we’ve rarely seen consecutive defensive possessions like Friday night over the past few seasons.
A stickler for defense, Willard and his staff record all deflections as a barometer of who is playing the hardest. And with probably the greatest depth he’s had as a Division I head coach — his words — Willard now wields all the tools to alter games on the defensive end like he did tonight.
The players seem completely fine with that.
“We like pressing, it kind of speeds teams up and makes them take rushed shots if you don’t get a steal,” said Khadeen Carrington.
“And I think we got two or three ten-second calls, pressuring those guys we knew they had a freshman guard and he wasn’t gonna handle it well so we just tried to get in his shorts and put him under pressure. That was the plan coming into it.”
“Yeah, he [Willard] really wants to push the tempo and keep going at ‘em and at ‘em, he doesn’t want us to pull our foot off the brake. It’s a team effort.” said freshman Myles Cale, who added 12 points off the bench.
Cale, who was diving all over Walsh Gym up 20 points in an exhibition game just last weekend, has clearly bought into Willard’s schemes about eight months removed from tearing his left labrum.
The freshman led Seton Hall in steals, but the other Myles allegedly tops the team’s charts in a key defensive category: deflections.
“Myles [Powell] gets a lot of deflections. I think I led us in deflections today though, I had six or seven,” said Carrington, smirking.
“That’s what we focus on though, deflecting the ball because it disrupts the offense. Coach says that’s who is playing the hardest at all times.”
For Seton Hall, it’s probably a healthy thing that players are not only keeping track of deflections, but bragging about them.
Those deflections — and defensive intensity — turned the tide on opening night.