It was a year of surprises for college basketball. We saw teams break out of old habits (Villanova), basketball giants fall in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament (Michigan State), and to cap it all off, we had a buzzer beater to decide the National Championship Game. The season couldn't have gone any better.
The same can be said about the Seton Hall Pirates, who surprised everyone this past year. Seton Hall started off this year ranked 7th in the coaches pre-season poll. Although 7th out of 10 is a respectable standing considering how tough the Big East conference is, the votes showed a different story. The coaches gave Seton Hall 27 pre-season points, which was just two over DePaul and 17 under Marquette. 17 points. It was a big margin to the top half for Seton Hall, who had questions coming into this season.
Kevin Willard's team was extremely young. Derrick Gordon, the transfer from UMass, was the only senior on the team and Seton Hall only has two juniors on the team and they don't even play big minutes. Their entire starting lineup was comprised of mostly sophomores led by star guard Isaiah Whitehead, who is headed to the NBA next season. The expectations weren't that high for the Pirates coming into the season but they quickly caught fire and started making headlines. The Pirates had some key wins early including a big win over NCAA powerhouse Wichita State (ranked 8th in KenPom rankings) in overtime. Wins over Georgia, Ole Miss, and even a close loss to George Washington were all a part of Seton Hall's journey in nonconference play.
The real test however was conference play. How would Seton Hall fare against the likes of Xavier and Villanova?
They did just fine as Seton Hall went 12-6 in conference play with wins over Xavier and Providence twice and a win over Villanova in the Big East championship game. The Pirates made a run, defied the odds, and made what looked improbable possible.
Sadly, that magic ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They were outmatched in their 68-52 loss to Gonzaga where their inexperience showed itself. It was a crushing loss that came so quickly after the euphoria of winning the Big East Championship, but that is sports. Highs and lows.
The optimism is still high around Seton Hall as they enter the 2016-17 season though. With the exception of Whitehead and Gordon, many of the key players - Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, and Ismael Sanogo - are coming back for another year. Seton Hall also recently grabbed a new recruit in Eron Gordon who will be joining them.
The Pirates will likely retain a lockdown defense that ranked eighth in the KenPom rankings with a mark of 92.8 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, just 0.3 points behind Bob Huggins' full court pressing West Virginia team that was so talked about last season. Their defense was something that gave teams a lot of trouble, and if Seton Hall wants a chance at repeating the success they had last season, the defense has to keep up its performance or even get better.
Seton Hall also must be able to find the scoring that they are losing with the departure of Whitehead. He averaged around 18.2 points per game, served as the primary ball handler on offense, and was a sparkplug when the team was going through a slump. The key will be to find that scoring and it will probably have to come from more than one player.
Rodriguez, Carrington, and Delgado will have to step up next season to try and fill in for Whitehead's scoring, a tough task for anyone to handle. We have no idea what underclassmen will step up this year so as of right now, it's an assortment of juniors running the floor for Seton Hall, and we have seen signs of life from all three players that they have the potential to take over games and be the Pirates' main scoring option.
Experience is key in any situation, especially this one. There will be a different pressure for Seton Hall this year and it will be one of the public eyes. This year will be different. Different in a sense that nobody will be underestimating them and they won't take anyone by surprise. This year we will get to see what Seton Hall is made of.