As divorces go, the Seton Hall/Bobby Gonzalez split was a particularly nasty one. There is a lawsuit and a countersuit, fights over the common assets, each side taking turns dragging the other through the mud, irrational behavior following the breakup, all the classic symptoms. At some point, we expect there to be an argument over who gets to keep the dog – or at least the Pirate. Basically, since March, the Seton Hall basketball program has turned into a bad soap opera, what with the divorce and arrests and frightening health problems and god knows what else. And into this mess steps Kevin Willard, a 35-year old (my god, this guy is younger than me) former Rick Pitino assistant (and son of Louisville associate head coach Ralph Willard) who just finished compiling a 45-49 record over three years at Iona. Willard has established a tough defensive style in his three years as a head coach, a strength which will play nicely in the Big East.

The 09-10 Pirates were an up-tempo, highly efficient offensive team, and were it not for a couple of deadly losing streaks (a four-game dive at the beginning of conference play featuring a couple of home losses and a three-game road slide in the middle), may have been dancing. Those losses were highlighted by an inability to stop their opponents from scoring, a weakness that Willard will work on shoring up immediately. The biggest loss for the Pirates will be point guard Eugene Harvey, but with junior Jordan Theodore waiting in the wings as an able replacement, the biggest concern for the Pirates (both on the court and off) is the health of junior forward Herb Pope, who collapsed during a workout in late April and had to be taken to a hospital where he spent almost a month. While further details are sketchy, Pope does hope to play for the Pirates next season, and his presence will definitely be needed. Pope is one of the nation’s best returning rebounders, an often spectacular shot blocker, a more than capable offensive player with inside-out versatility, and a guy just starting to come into his own who is capable of reaching all-Big East heights.

And Pope isn’t the only Pirate with all-Big East talent; in fact, Jeremy Hazell has already reached that level, taking down second team honors last season after averaging over 20 points a night. While Hazell can be maddeningly inconsistent (witness his two points on 0-10 shooting in the season opening squeaker over St. Peter’s or his two-point 1-7 disappearance in a blowout loss at Pitt, in the middle of that key three-game road slide, as just two instances), he is also capable of spectacular outbursts (such as 79 points over two games against West Virginia and Syracuse at the end of December, oddly in the middle of the other Pirate losing streak). He is a volume shooter (it took him 64 shots to get those 79 points) and prone to taking bad shots on a fairly regular basis, but on the good side he is an athletic leaper and acrobatic finisher who has a bucketful of moves and can score from just about anywhere on the court. If he can tighten up his shot selection a bit and become a more efficient offensive player, the Pirates will be immensely better as a result.

Both Pope and Hazell declared for the NBA Draft before withdrawing their names to return to school, as did small forward Jeff Robinson, a one-time New Jersey High School Player of the Year who found his way to Seton Hall via a small detour to Memphis. Robinson is a big body who may be the most efficient offensive player the Pirates have. He is a very good rebounder for his position, has a strong midrange-and-in game, almost never turns the ball over and doesn’t need a whole lot of offense run for him to make his contributions. While he is a limited perimeter shooter, he knows what he is capable of and takes care of business there.

Then there’s Theodore, who started half of the Seton Hall games last year and will likely slide in as the full-time starter at the point under Willard. Theodore is a quick penetrating guard who is very capable at using his ability to get inside to create opportunities for his teammates, and unlike the departed Harvey, is a solid three-point threat as well. Alongside Theodore in the backcourt will likely be Eniel Polynice, a transfer from Ole Miss who will be eligible to play immediately since he has already received his degree. Polynice is a big guard who handles well, can help out on the glass and is an excellent defender. While he can be a little wild offensively and is generously regarded as a “streaky shooter” (which is little more than a euphemism for a guy who shoots too much and makes too little), if Willard can contain him, he is an excellent pickup for the program who can also move over and run the point in order to give Theodore some rest.

Behind Polynice at the two are a couple of seniors: Keon Lawrence and Jamel Jackson. Lawrence is more of a defensive guard, while Jackson is a pure shooter. Jackson would fit in well with Theodore’s drive-and-dish capabilities, but Lawrence may mesh more with Willard’s commitment to defense. Either way, both figure to get plenty of time for the Pirates.

Frontcourt depth will come from sophomore forward Ferrakohn Hall and a group of freshman frontcourt additions including power forward Patrik Auda, small forwards Fuquan Edwin and Anali Okoloji and their newest signee, center Aaron Geramipoor. Hall got a handful of minutes as a freshman and showed pretty well for himself, converting at a high rate from the field and holding his own on the glass. He’ll need to improve his footwork and add strength, but he has a chance to be a player in the Big East, and will likely get the first look off the bench in the frontcourt. The freshmen, however, are a mixed bag. Edwin is an undersized three who makes up for his stature with his athleticism and non-stop motor. While his jumper isn’t much to look at, he’s got a good handle, can finish well and is a good perimeter defender. Okoloji is more of a combo forward, with the body of a big man but a set of skills that will allow him to play the three. He’s got a versatile offensive game with a combination of some good post moves and a face-up game that is highlighted by a strong midrange jumper. Auda is a Czech big man with a prototypical European big-man’s game: 3pt range, the ability to put the ball on the deck and some good passing skills. His physicality inside on the defensive end is pure bonus. Geramipoor was just signed by Seton Hall this week, and at 6'11, he'll bring plenty of size. However, he is seen as more of work-in-progress and may only get spot minutes as a freshman. Given the relative dearth of returning big guys on this roster, this group will need to see a couple of players step up and eat up some minutes effectively. Luckily, however, the Pirates are blessed with enough offensive talent that scoring from this group of young bigs will not be a necessity.

All things considered, Willard is in a pretty good position. While other new Big East head coaches have rebuilding projects on their hands (Rutgers, DePaul), he inherits a team that can, and should, compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. A lot will depend on the health of Pope (and here’s hoping his doctors make damn sure he is good to go without significant risks), but even if Pope is unable to play for one reason or another this season, the Pirates look like they are capable of big things. If Pope is able to return at anything approaching his previous abilities, Seton Hall should be dancing in March.

 


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