"Seton Hall Pirates, 2016 Big East basketball champions."
How could anyone in their right mind believe that statement?
I mean, the Pirates were a .500 mess last year, barely surviving the season. They were humiliated in the first round of the Big East Tournament by a less-than-average Marquette squad. Once ranked among the nation's best, a team that beat nationally-ranked teams Villanova and St. John's in consecutive games over a four-day stretch right near New Year's Day, the Pirates, bereft with internal strife and complete discord, limped their way home to finish the 16-15 campaign.
I got a lot of grief from a lot of people for a blog I wrote last year, talking about the troubles the Pirates were having, that the star former McDonald's All-American guard Isaiah Whitehead was the root of a lot of the Pirates' problems. Lambasted and chastised would be understatements for the reception I received for that blog.
When I went to Media Day last October, before the start of the 2015-16 season, the idea of the fractured locker room was brought up to sixth-year head coach Kevin Willard, who later admitted that this current season was basically a "shit or get off the pot" season.
Willard admitted that he handled the fractured team, which caused two top guards, Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs, to transfer out of the program. Willard admitted that he handled the problems in the locker room "terribly" and vowed back in October that there were indeed changes made.
“I don’t think I did a very good job handling the distractions,” Willard said. “I didn’t handle the outside distractions well. There were a lot of outside distractions from family and friends, aunts and uncles. It wasn’t just one factor. I have a much better handle on that now, but the dynamic of this team is much different.”
Even Whitehead addressed the issue.
“I never believed any of it,” said Whitehead, the program’s first McDonald’s All-American since 2001. “My mom raised me to be the best person I can be. I’m a good guy. I just think we didn’t know what it was like to be ranked and how to handle it. Last year is in the past. We’ve put it behind us. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Flash forward to Saturday night in New York, when a new Big East champion was crowned. The team was _ yes, believe it _ the Pirates and the Most Valuable Player of the tournament was none other than the believed troublemaker Whitehead.
The Pirates defeated Villanova, 69-67, to win their first Big East title since 1993, back to an era where the Pirates were believed to be one of the best programs in the country, back to the days when P.J. Carlesimo was the coach, Terry Dehere was the star and Jerry Walker was the enforcer.
There were a lot of reasons why the Pirates are the Big East champions. First, what a transformation in Whitehead, who went from beleaguered player to team leader in a matter of minutes.
Then, there was Willard, who really did his homework about his own team. Even though they were without a true point guard, Willard believed that the Pirates could win. They mixed and matched, using Whitehead as the barometer. They played tenacious and relentless defense, physical specimens.
If they committed a foul, no problem, we'll just lay it off until next time. They were relentless in their physicality.
Willard also changed up his defenses and the Pirates became a dominating force when they went to the 2-3 zone, the kind of zone that is taught in Biddy Leagues and CYO leagues throughout the area, even some of them move on to play in high school.
That zone defense saved the Pirates' season, because it allowed guards like Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington and Derrick Gordon to roam free, attack other ball handlers and go for steals. And if they got steals, which more often than not, they did get, they were off to the races the other way.
Whitehead was the key. As much as he was a divisive factor a year ago, he was a galvanizing piece this year. He put them all together and led them to the Promised Land.
Willard also deserves a lot of the credit and was deservedly the Big East Co-Coach of the Year, along with Villanova's Jay Wright. He eliminated all of the outside influences, took it upon himself to be the leader, made changes in the philosophies and stuck to his guns through it all. For the first time in six seasons, Willard acted like the program was indeed his. And kudos to him for having the intestinal fortitude to realize that he had to do all of the above.
Congrats to the Big East champions, the Pirates of Seton Hall, who deserve a No. 4 seed today when they unfurl the NCAA Tournament bracket later today. They deserve it so much for where they came from, from one game over .500 last year to the Big East champs this year.
And yes, I have to admit I was way wrong. I never thought this was possible. I have to swallow the pride a lot here.
And kudos to my buddy Greg Herenda and the Knights of FDU for also heading to March Madness as well. What a great turnaround for a team that had to endure a 15-game losing streak just last year, finished 8-21 and now gets to go to the Big Dance...
I wish I didn't have a busy schedule this week or I'd be on the road to Dayton with high school friends to see the Knights. Herenda and I were close friends during our days at St. Peter's Prep, constantly getting in trouble together, with him usually the one causing it. He was like my own Eddie Haskell, kissing up to my mother every chance possible and telling her all the mischief I was getting into in school. When he was right there alongside of me, causing the whole mess.
I'm very proud of Herenda, because he certainly paid his dues to get this chance to be a part of March Madness. I hope this means that after 35 years in the coaching business, he finally has some job security.
So wherever the Knights end up, it has been a great season and a great one for my friend. I wonder if Mr. Rowe, our physics teacher, knows how well Herenda did this year as a coach...
You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, with the column about Herenda, www.theobserver.com, www.dailyrecord.com and www.northjersey.com. Just Google my name and you'll never know what you might find.