For a coach fighting for his job entering the 2015-16 season, Kevin Willard delivered a rather emphatic statement about athletic director Pat Lyons’ widely questioned decision to give him one more season. Seton Hall’s return to prominence last year saw the Pirates win the Big East Tournament (defeating eventual national champion Villanova to do so), earn the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006 and produce the program’s highest victory total in 23 years. During a 25–9 campaign, Willard started an all-sophomore lineup 28 times — although star guard Isaiah Whitehead, the catalyst for the success, opted for the NBA Draft instead of a returning as a junior.
But the Pirates are clearly back — and they’re again brimming with talent. And Willard no longer has to see the phrase “embattled head coach” constantly attached to his name. “I give Pat Lyons credit,” says Willard. “He could have gotten rid of me (after the 2014-15 season). I told him, ‘If you stay with me I promise I’m going to win next year.’”
All Big East predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Kevin Willard
2015-16 RECORD (BIG EAST): 25–9 (12–6)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Gonzaga 68–52 in the first round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Fourth in Big East
G Derrick Gordon (8.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
G Isaiah Whitehead (18.2 ppg, 5.1 apg, 3.6 rpg)
Rugged forward Angel Delgado produced a worthy encore to his Big East Rookie of the Year season, finishing second in the league in rebounding at 9.3 while producing 13 double-doubles and averaging 9.9 points per game. He’s in line for all-conference recognition and anchors a frontcourt of starters and reserves that returns intact and provides depth and flexibility — along with stout defense that was a key ingredient to the Pirates’ success a year ago.
Returning starters Desi Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo made their mark despite Delgado’s looming presence, with Rodriguez averaging 12.4 points and 5.0 rebounds while producing a team-leading 54 steals. He also shot 38.6 percent from 3-point range and was one of just two Big East players last season to shoot at least 50 percent on field goals and 35 percent or better from 3-point range (among qualifiers).
The 6'8" Sanogo, a standout defender, averaged 5.0 points and 7.2 rebounds while starting all but two games. He was the only Big East player to rank in the top 12 in the league in rebounds, steals and blocks. He had at least eight rebounds in six of the season’s final seven games.
Michael Nzei, who started three games and played in all 34 (shooting 63.3 percent from the floor), 3-point specialist Veer Singh, Myles Carter and Rashed Anthony all return in backup roles. Nzei, a 6'7", 200-pounder, and Singh saw the most time among the reserves a season ago. Nzei had back-to-back double-figure scoring games in December.
Perhaps the one benefit to Whitehead’s departure is that it will allow Khadeen Carrington to become this team’s backcourt leader and new star. The 6'3" junior averaged 14.1 points last season and earned All-Big East Tournament honors during the Pirates’ league title run.
Filling the void left by Whitehead — an honorable mention All-American and first-team All-Big East performer — will be challenging, but Willard has four new options from which to choose. Touted freshmen Eron Gordon, a top-150 recruit, and Myles Powell arrive with star potential. Gordon, a shooting guard, is the brother of former Indiana star (and current NBA player) Eric Gordon Jr. He signed with the Pirates over Maryland, Missouri and Texas Tech. The 6'2" Powell, who prepped last year at South Kent in Connecticut, is also a shooting guard.
If there’s a learning curve for Gordon and Powell, transfers Jevon Thomas and Madison Jones offer immediate experience. Thomas arrives from Kansas State, where he started 25 games two years ago, averaging 4.5 points and 3.3 assists for the Wildcats. Jones is a graduate transfer from Wake Forest who had a solid junior year in 2014-15 (4.7 ppg, 3.0 apg).
All four newcomers on the perimeter will have plenty of opportunity since Whitehead led the team in minutes played.
Four new guards — two freshmen and two transfers — give Kevin Willard hope that the blow from Isaiah Whitehead’s loss will be softened. Eron Gordon was a finalist for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. Myles Powell, hobbled by a broken foot last year, arrives with a reputation as a crack shooter. For immediate experience, Kansas State transfer Jevon Thomas and Wake Forest graduate transfer Madison Jones are proven commodities.
Had Whitehead decided to return, this probably would have been a top-15 team. Without him, there’s still more than enough returning talent, depth and experience to view this as top-25-caliber squad. So much depends on how well the four new guards acclimate themselves to a roster that is set everywhere except in Whitehead’s old spot. Defensively, the Pirates will give a lot of teams fits after leading the Big East in field goal percentage defense last season.