Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Seton Hall Upsets No. 6 Villanova, Moves into National Conversation
BY JEREMY FUCHS
NEWARK — Coming into the season, it would have been easy to write off Seton Hall in the Big East. They were picked sixth in the preseason coaches poll and had to incorporate a number of freshmen.
After 14 games, and two Big East games, one thing is clear: Seton Hall is a Big East contender. And not only have they established themselves as a NCAA tournament team, Seton Hall has entered the national conversation as a team that can make noise come March.
On Saturday at the Prudential Center, Seton Hall stunned No. 6 Villanova 66-61 in overtime, despite loads of foul trouble. Sterling Gibbs led all scorers with 20 points, Khadeen Carrington added 17, including four in overtime in his second impressive game in a row, and coach Kevin Willard had to use a long bench to stay competitive.
“I keep them very level-headed, very grounded,” Willard said. “These two home games, for us, were as big as any two home games, because of the next two road games [against Xavier and Creighton].”On New Year’s Eve, Seton Hall (12-2, 2-0) stunned No. 15 St. John’s, with Gibbs playing what Steve Lavin called “one of the better performances in my college career in terms of an opposing point guard.” Against St. John’s, Gibbs scored 25 points and added eight assists. Gibbs again had to lead the squad against one of the best teams in the nation, scoring 20 and dishing out four assists. He is quickly becoming a top-notch Big East player. That’s not surprising to guard Jaren Sina.
“Sterling’s playing like a Big East Player of the Year,” Sina said.
There was a raucous environment at the arena, befitting a team making a national rise.
“It was big time,” Gibbs said. “That’s one of the moments I’ll never forget. I envisioned us winning this game. We executed. A lot of guys stepped up big time. It was a great team effort. It’s big for the state of New Jersey. It’s big for Seton Hall to bring basketball back, to pack the Prudential Center. In the past years, it hasn’t been this packed. To be able to bring that excitement back is really a big thing for us.”
The Hall has a tough in-conference schedule remaining, with one more game each against St. John’s and Villanova (13-1, 1-1), two games against Georgetown and difficult games at Xavier and Providence. The Big East is not dead.
“Everyone has their own opinions,” Brandon Mobley said when asked about some of the Big East detractors. “If that’s how they feel about it, that’s how they feel about it. We know how physical Big East basketball is.”
Willard’s recruiting has been essential to the team’s success. Even without star Isaiah Whitehead, out with a stress fracture in his foot, the Pirates have been able to thrive. Due to foul trouble, Willard had to use his entire bench, including Ismael Sanogo, Haralds Karlis and little-used 7-footer Chier Ajou, who entered the game with 17 total minutes,
Some of the more heralded recruits like Desi Rodriguez impressed with his energy and toughness, grabbing 11 rebounds. Rashed Anthony, a redshirt freshman, played solid defense in the post with Angel Delgado sitting out most of the first half with foul trouble.
“I thought Rashed Anthony kind of saved the game for us in the first half,” Willard said. “He came in and battled.”
The real star for Seton Hall was Carrington, who has had to take on a bigger role since Whitehead got hurt.
“He’s never not had the ball in his hands [in high school],” Willard said. “He reminds me of an undersized Dwyane Wade, the way he can score, the way he uses his athleticism.”
Carrington knew he was going to have to play a bigger role, and has lived up to the challenge.
“I thought it was a moment for me to step out, put up his numbers and more,” Carrington said. “I think I’m doing a good job. I just try to stay aggressive. I try to make big plays.”
Seton Hall has used its hot start in Big East play as a boon for recruiting. A number of top flight recruits were at the Prudential Center to take in the game. Among them: Bryce Aiken (PG, The Patrick School, 2016); Traci Carter (PG, Life Center Academy, 2015); Veer Singh (SF, St. Peter’s Prep, 2016); TJ Gibbs (PG, Seton Hall Prep, 2016); Trevon Duval (SG, St. Benedict’s Prep, 2017); Ray Salnave (PG, Cardozo High, 2016); Myles Powell (SG, Trenton Catholic, 2016). Carter, who plays for Pervis Ellison at Life Center Academy, said yesterday that he is considering the Hall, as well as Indiana and Louisville.
Those recruits were treated to quite the show, watching a team come into its own and defy expectations.
“To beat two top-15 teams back-to-back, it shows a lot about us,” Gibbs said.
Something special is building in South Orange, perhaps a year or so earlier than expected. With this year’s stellar recruiting class, plus another one most likely on the way, Willard and Seton Hall have begun to establish themselves as Big East forces and as a team worth talking about. And once Whitehead comes back, the sky’s the limit.
Seton Hall, out of nowhere, is a national team, a potential Top-25 team. For Mobley, that’s how it should be.
“Oh yeah,” Mobley said when asked if his team should get national attention. “Especially with this.”
Photo: Jim O’Connor / USA Today Sports
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.