1. What has happened over the last month? Does the team need to get accustomed to winning?
It has been quite a roller coaster month for Seton Hall. When the news broke on Christmas Eve that star freshman Isaiah Whitehead would be out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right foot, a lot of "doom and gloom" fans came out of the woodwork given the cruel history of season-derailing injuries over the last few seasons. The Pirates were 10-2 heading into Big East play with two home games against St. John's (ranked 15th at the time) and Villanova coming up. It looked like a tall order but lo and behold, the Hall won both games and people thought missing Whitehead may not be a big deal after all. Fast forward to today and the team is in the midst of a three game skid and has lost four of its past five games. If it was not for Sterling Gibbs' heroics at Creighton on January 10 in a game in which the Pirates were outplayed for the majority of the game by the last place Bluejays, Seton Hall would be mired in a five game losing streak heading to Milwaukee. I think your second question about getting accustomed to winning is spot on. As Big East fans know, Seton Hall hasn't had much success over the last decade. While most Pirate teams over that span have been competitive, they were never good enough to seriously contend for postseason play year in and year out. A poor head coaching hiring decision in 2006 set the program back substantially but Kevin Willard (hired in 2010) has tried his best to establish a culture of winning. Unfortunately, that has been easier said than done. This is the second time in four years that a Willard-led team has almost immediately collapsed after gaining a national ranking and the attention that comes with it. Handling success and creating that culture of winning, such as that of the Marquette program, has proven to be difficult for Seton Hall.
2. How hot was Willard's seat going into the season? Is he coaching to save his job?
3. How do the fans feel about the state of the program? Are they getting restless... or are they hopeful about what they're seeing this season?
Seton Hall fans have been mostly positive this season as the 12-2 start and the infusion of quality young talent into the program created optimism. As you might expect, this recent downturn in the quality of play has the natives restless. Given the last decade of poor results and the collapse of the 2011-12 team, I get the sense that fans have in the back of their minds that it's too good to be true and everything will eventually come apart. That may or may not be happening, but we'll find out our answer over the next few weeks. There are legitimate concerns about Willard's ability to recruit. The 2014 class was a blockbuster for Seton Hall, but the two highest impact players (Whitehead and Angel Delgado) were directly tied to assistant coaching hires, one of whom has moved on (Oliver Antigua is assisting his brother, Orlando, at South Florida these days). While this tactic is perfectly within NCAA rules and has been used (and will be used again) by many programs across the country, most view it as unsustainable and possibly a one hit wonder. With only one player in the 2015 class on board at this point, the criticism of Willard's recruiting has intensified. One great class does not make a program and Pirate fans are eager to see results on the recruiting trail over the next few months, both for 2015 and among the 2016 class.
4. How badly does this team miss Isaiah Whitehead right now? Would they have won the close ones against Butler and DePaul?
Isaiah Whitehead is incredibly missed right now. He is the only player on the roster who can create his own shot, set up a teammate with a great pass and take it to the basket and finish. While other players can do one or two of those things, Whitehead is the only one who can do it all. Defensively, Seton Hall is allowing opponents to carve them up in the paint through dribble penetration, shining a spotlight on the lack of a rim protector. Whitehead helped to limit dribble penetration because of his size and athleticism and it's no coincidence that Seton Hall was playing its best defense when Whitehead was healthy. The Pirates are at their best when intense defense fuels the offense. Willard's teams have never been great in the half court offense and it's players like Whitehead who open things up on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the guards have suffered most in Whitehead's absence. Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina have logged incredible minutes and it is taking a toll. Gibbs has hit a wall over the last two games and Sina has struggled for basically the entire year. While Gibbs can pull up for three or take it to the basket on a dribble drive, Sina cannot. Open looks have to be created for Sina in order for him to get his perimeter shot off and that just isn't happening without Whitehead in the lineup. I guess you could say they would have won two home games against Butler and DePaul but I prefer not to speak in absolutes. Both Butler and DePaul (especially Butler) are poor matchups for Seton Hall personnel wise given the length on both rosters. Whitehead's presence would have helped, but I wouldn't go so far as to say they'd have won both games with him. I would say a split would have been far more likely, with the win coming against the Blue Demons. The bottom line is the Hall had an eight point lead with under six minutes remaining in that one and couldn't get it done. With or without Whitehead, they did a poor job closing that one out.
5. Who is the leadership presence on and off the floor? Is it Sterling Gibbs, or is it one of the seniors like Brandon Mobley?
6. Other than Whitehead, which freshmen are showing the most promise?
7. What's working this year that hasn't in previous years? According to Ken Pom it's better play on the boards.
That's right, although offensive rebounding in particular is the area that has really improved and made the offense more efficient. Almost all of that has been due to the play of Delgado, who has been absolutely outstanding. Defensive rebounding is actually an area that has really hurt the Hall this year, especially in recent games. A lot of guys are missing block out assignments and their positioning is not good. As tenacious as Delgado is on the offensive glass, the coaching staff does need to work with him on awareness and positioning defensively. Another reason for this year's success had been defense, but that has started to fizzle over the last few weeks. Even with the recent struggles, the numbers say, Seton Hall is defending better than it has since Willard's first two seasons in South Orange. Perimeter defense is also a strength of this group as opponents are shooting an anemic 26.8% from beyond the arc, good for 3rd in the nation. I'm not sure how much of this is actual defense versus playing so many opponents who just don't shoot the three ball well, but it's something that has certainly helped. Making winning plays late in games is a major difference this year too. In games decided by five points or less, Seton Hall is 4-2 this season as opposed to 5-10 in 2013-14.
8. Will this team make the tournament? Since they're so young, they could gel in February and get a single-digit seed.
9. How about a fun fact or two about Newark?
10. Pregame prediction? (I like the Hall to win by a point, btw)
When looking at this game my first instinct was to pick Marquette because it is a home game and the Golden Eagles seem to be playing with a lot of grit and toughness. They have lost four of five as well and both teams should be focused because of that. However, when looking at the matchups I think the Pirates are going to come out on top. I think Delgado's athleticism will give him the advantage inside over Luke Fischer and the statistics say it could be an offensive rebounding feast for Seton Hall against Wojo's undersized and undermanned group. If Marquette continues to play a zone defense, I think that favors Seton Hall despite some of the success Marquette has had with it. I think Gibbs and Delgado will have big games and the Pirate defense should do enough to at least contain either Matt Carlino or Duane Wilson. Stopping both will be a tough task. While I think Marquette is the tougher team and possibly better coached, the Hall has more talent even without Whitehead. Marquette deserves to be a two or three point favorite playing at home, but I think this may be the game where the Hall snaps out of its shooting slump, toughens up and comes together to get a much-needed road win. From a Marquette perspective, how does it respond to the emotionally draining Georgetown game this past Saturday? I think that could be a factor. The wildcard here is how each team reacts to the adversity they're both facing. Nobody can say for sure, but I think the Pirates know this is a more important game for them and will rise to the occasion in what should be a close game throughout.