by Josh Adams
New York- The Seton Hall Pirates fought to the bitter end as the horn sounded on their Big East Tournament run, coming just short of upsetting the #1 seeded Villanova Wildcats.
A team that was picked to finish 8th in the conference in the preseason poll was one shot away from becoming Big East Champions.
It was a team that everyone who wasn’t on it was wrong about. We all figured with the graduation of four starters and plugging transfers and players who rode the bench into the starting lineup, the Pirates were looking at .500 at best in their regular season record.
We didn’t count on the guys on this team gelling so quickly, how there’s no cliques. How effortlessly Quincy McKnight would slide into the point guard position and be a defensive stopper every game. How Myles Cale would become more consistent and show flashes of greatness as his confidence grew into his game.
We didn’t think Sandro Mamukelashvili could learn so quickly from his mentor Angel Delgado, on how to compete and get rebounds in the rough and tumble Big East Conference. We didn’t know how fast he would develop into a durable presence down in the paint and how much pride he took in being a teammate everyone could count on. We didn’t know the joy he had in his eye whenever he met with the press after the game and how appreciative he was to be playing basketball for Seton Hall.
We had no idea that Kevin Willard would be able to coax some great games out of players like Romaro Gill, Jared Rhoden, Anthony Nelson and Shavar Reynolds. That Gill and Nelson would be so valuable tonight against Villanova. Nelson put in some big minutes tonight in the Big East Championship when McKnight tweaked his hamstring and had to sit for awhile. He rose to the occasion and scored 12 points on the biggest stage of his life. Gill hit a few key baskets tonight and used his long frame to alter shots.
Speaking of Kevin Willard, the guy proved this year that he is one of the best coaches in the country. We all thought it would take at least a year for the team to buy into his system. It took less than a month. There were some growing pains losses to Nebraska and St. Louis in November. We were worried that the team wouldn’t gain it’s footing until conference play. Those worries were proven wrong after the team went out to California and won the Wooden Legacy Tournament over Miami (FL). over Thanksgiving weekend. We thought the brutal non-conference season Willard scheduled would sink the year before Big East play started. Well, Seton Hall went out and beat #9 Kentucky at Madison Square Garden then traveled down to Maryland and defeated the Terps in College Park.
When conference play started, it was a game winner from Reynolds of all players that sunk St. John’s to set the tone. There were some bumps along the way. A four game losing streak in January. Three losses in a row late in the conference year that threatened their postseason hopes. Yet, they defied the odds once again and beat Marquette twice, Georgetown once and Villanova once to close out the regular season. The Pirates assured themselves a place in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
What we did have is some idea about how special a player Myles Powell turned out to be. The junior from Trenton was a superstar this year. We heard from Willard at the end of last year that Powell was going to be one of the greats to put on a Seton Hall uniform. He was more than a great player. He was a great teammate, a terrific interview and a role model for his team and his Trenton community. He credited the seniors from last season on teaching him how to become a leader. You could see in the freshmen this season that they looked up to him and because of that Seton Hall has nothing to be worried about in terms of character in the foreseeable future.
There’s more basketball to be played this weekend and there’s a sting in losing so closely to Villanova. You could see it on Powell’s face and in his posture after tonight’s game. The cruelty of college basketball in March is you know the end is coming but no one knows exactly when. We all wanted five more seconds tonight, one more shot that just wasn’t in the cards.
I hope the Pirates surprise us some more as the NCAA Tournament starts. I hope this year continues as long as possible. It’s too much fun to see it come to an end.