This time last year, Seton Hall was heading into the Big East Tournament losers in eight of their last nine games, carting around both a fractured locker room and a head coach in Kevin Willard who wasn’t confident he’d stick around to see another season.
Fast forward a year and Seton Hall (21-7, 11-5) has matched their highest regular season win total in over two decades and has locked up their first NCAA bid since 2006 with a commanding 90-81 win over No. 5 Xavier.
The transformation has been rapid, not without growing pains, and to the coaches and players, somewhat unbelievable.
“It’s been a long process,” reflected Kevin Willard about the past six seasons after he and his players ambushed lone senior Derrick Gordon with a Gatorade bath.
“I think you go into it [the job], you’re stupid, you’re naive, you think you’re going to do things you can’t do. But I give [athletic director] Pat Lyons credit, he could have gotten rid of me last year. I told him, ‘If you stick with me, I promise you we’re going to win next year. I trust these kids, I know these kids.’”
Less than 12 months later, Willard’s last-ditch attempt to save his job has paid off. And that’s not an overstatement: Seton Hall’s skipper obtusely admitted that he was in talks last spring with the realtor that sold him his current Westfield, New Jersey home.
The keys to Seton Hall’s success? Besides the obvious development of a talented group of freshmen into sophomores, is work ethic and the will to prove people wrong.
“I loved their attitude, their attitude at the end of the year was nothing more than coming back and proving to everybody how good they could be,” said Willard.
“Angel [Delgado], Ish [Sanogo], Khadeen [Carrington] and Isaiah [Whitehead] ended school May 14th and they started working May 17th in summer school. They took three days off. As a coach you look around and you’re in the gym with those guys every day in the summer and everybody else is at home maybe working on their game.
“Those guys, they showed up every morning at 8am, they worked out, they came back and played open gym at night and got shots up at night. As a coach, you look at that and you know you’ve got something special.”
Comparing this season to last, Willard first said that the locker room chemistry a year ago was bad (but “wasn’t as bad as everybody thought”), but that it’s much-improved this year, largely due to Derrick Gordon’s arrival.
In an effort to prevent further bleeding, Gordon, as you may remember, called a players-only meeting after a brutal loss to Creighton in early January that has paid countless dividends since.
“This year it’s obviously been much better, and I give Derrick a lot of credit for that,” said Willard of the team’s chemistry. “Derrick has sacrificed a lot of playing time, shots, starting. He’s unselfish and really his maturity of just understanding and being through it has helped all these young guys. It’s a weird dynamic that he’s just such a mature young man that he has a calming presence on everybody.”
For someone who was in the thick of the struggle a season ago, leading scorer Isaiah Whitehead reflected on the past year after scoring 22 plus dishing 5 assists against Xavier.
“You can tell just by watching us play how much we have each others back and how much we want to succeed together,” said Whitehead.
“That’s a big part of what we didn’t have last year. Last year at a certain point everybody was looking [out] for themselves, but this year we’re a collective group and we really put ourselves in a position to win every game.”
Minutes before Derrick Gordon would patiently wade through a throng of media just to sit next to his teammate for post-game interviews, Whitehead concurred with his head coach on how invaluable Gordon has been to the team, on and off the hardwood.
“Without Derrick on this team I wouldn’t be slapping the floor out there trying to get stops, guarding people full court. He does it to me every day in practice so it’s kind of second nature to me now.”
For Derrick, the hard-nosed slashing guard who has played all season with taped up fingers due to dislocations, the first player in NCAA history to both come out as gay as well as make the NCAA tournament with three different programs, and the guy who went flying into the first row countless times against Xavier, today’s culmination of a year of work is somewhat hard to process.
“It’s something that I wasn’t really expecting,” said Gordon of the success Seton Hall has had.
“Coming into this year I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen. I had to find my place on this team, going from that to now it’s been an incredible experience playing with these guys and I’m just very fortunate to be here.”
Another thing that Derrick wasn’t exactly expecting is his current role as a beacon of leadership in a team loaded with talented but green sophomores.
That, it seems clear, has made the ultimate difference.
“I had to make adjustments, I had to get used to these players. They listen, that’s the thing. They’re not hard-headed, we gel together and they’re easy to talk to. Me, I’m usually quiet, I don’t usually talk as much but me being the senior, I had to talk. I had to lead this team and that’s what Coach Willard wanted me to do when I came here.”
For Gordon, who has been constantly harping both to the media and his teammates about getting to the NCAA tournament, the horizon may yield even grander plans.
“We have no limits, honestly. I was just talking to Desi [Rodriguez] about that. When we’re all clicking, I don’t think we can lose to a team in the country when we’re all playing well. That’s the good thing, it’s been awhile since everybody has played well. It’s always a couple people playing well and a couple people having off-nights. But when everybody is playing well, we can beat anybody.”
But for now, it’s all about reveling in what has been an up, but mostly down, 10 years since Seton Hall crashed and burned in the 2006 NCAA tournament before most fans could blink an eye.
It’s a culmination of illogical belief for those fans who have sat amongst crowds that total no more than 3,000 on a cold Wednesday night in December.
It’s looking back at the 10 years of torment and frustration that have been washed away in the course of a little over 2 hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Newark.
And perhaps most importantly, today is all about seeing the tireless hard work of a group of young men come to fruition and prove doubters wrong.
“I remember someone asked me why I came to Seton Hall and I said ‘Just wait,’” reflected Isaiah Whitehead.
“There’s no better response than today.”