Pirates show punch

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel will follow Seton Hall as it tries to put together a run in the Big East tournament. Return for Wetzel's reports on the Pirates' progress.

NEW YORK – Pacing in front of a whiteboard in a small Madison Square Garden locker room, Bobby Gonzalez's pregame speech was as much about where his Seton Hall Pirates were about to play as how he wanted them to play.

"Michael Jordan's been in here," he shouted to his 10-man team seated in front of him, getting more worked up by the sentence. "Kobe Bryant's been in here. LeBron's been in here. We're in the Garden. We're on Broadway. It's an honor to play here.

"But we have to understand what this building does. Guys get nervous. Guys get Garden-itis. It's tough to get the game into the 70s in the Garden. We can't, we can't, rely on the jump shot.

"We have to pass the ball. We can't worry about some guy in the stands from 155th Street yelling, 'Take it to the hole. Take it to the hole.'

"We run every chance we get. Take it to the rim at the right time. Bang it inside. Whoever gets the most easy points in this game will win."

Seton Hall got them, maybe not as many as Gonzalez wanted, maybe with more 3s than he predicted (including four from Jeremy Hazell), but with the school's first Big East tourney win in six years in the bag, 68-54 over South Florida, he didn't care a bit.

"This is just a fun team to coach," he said after the game, smiling.

Seton Hall's impossible march of March, a five-victory-in-five-day challenge to win the Big East tournament is still alive, as are the Pirates' NIT hopes. Up next, a Wednesday night game against No. 18 Syracuse, the second test of what might be the most difficult conference tournament challenge of all time.

To win the expanded, 16-team Big East tournament, the Hall doesn't just have to win five games in five days, it could, if seeds hold, have to beat SU, No. 3 Connecticut, No. 2 Pittsburgh and No. 5 Louisville. All of whom will be better rested than a young Hall team that has just seven scholarship players.

Whoever wins the NCAA tournament probably won't face that many top teams, let alone back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Yahoo! Sports decided to tag along with the Pirates and their excitable coach in a challenge even they think is too crazy to even dream about.

His game plan for Syracuse?

"We're going to St. Patrick's Cathedral and praying that Paul Harris and some of those guys don't show up," he said of the Orange's tough forward.

He's joking. Sort of. He won't pray at St. Pat's, but he will take in another mass with team priest Father John Denhany in room 1110 of the East Side Marriott, 10:30 a.m. sharp.

"It worked today, I'm superstitious," Gonzo said.

So too did the pregame speech. While it turns out both the Hall and USF shot better from the outside than predicted, the premise was correct. Gonzalez hails from Western New York originally but he considers himself a New York City guy. His players almost all hail from the metropolitan area, Brooklyn and Harlem mostly.

They know the Garden, respect the Garden and love the Garden. They understand that for decades players, from preps to pros, have walked into the "Mecca of Basketball" and left their shooting touch out on 34th Street.

Maybe it's nerves. Maybe it's the dark backdrop. Maybe it's the unique sightlines. Maybe it's that often teams can't practice in the building (Seton Hall had an early afternoon shootaround at the New York Athletic Club).

"It's like it's windy out in the park," Gonzo said. "You can't afford to be cute."

So they pushed for transition baskets, worked the ball inside and took it to the rim.

Of course, pregame, Gonzo had the luxury of showing how in three previous games Tuesday, teams averaged just 59.7 points. And he knew everyone heard the loud halftime "talk" of Rutgers coach Fred Hill in the adjacent locker room. Hill had just watched his team shoot too many jumpers and score just 19 points in the first half.

"I'm warning you right now," Gonzo told his guys. "That is what is going to happen in here if we shoot jumpers."

Even when USF held a two-point lead at halftime, Gonzo's speech wasn't a barrage of anger because the players were mostly doing what they were told. Of course, it might be part of his new subdued – at least by his standards – demeanor.

He's known in this league as a mad man on the sidelines, someone in a constant battle with officials and media. The antics almost cost him his job a year ago, when there was enough speculation of turmoil the school had to release a statement saying he wouldn't be fired.

In stepped Sen. Richard Codey, the New Jersey state senate president, major Seton Hall backer and Gonzo father figure. Codey is a big fan of the coach, but in no uncertain terms, he told him that he had to ease up on everyone because his intensity and impatience had worn people down.

"I told him, you need to realize that you will implode if you don't change your ways," Codey said. "He had to change his comportment. I told him, 'If you get fired here, you're going to wind up in South Dakota trying to work your way back.'

"He can flat out coach. That's never been in doubt. The question is can you control him to move the program forward?"

Codey assured the school administration he'd work to make Gonzalez more of, for lack of a better term, a politician. The success is obvious. Everyone around the program says he's better to people, more understanding and reasonable. "It's the nuances in life," Codey said.

He's still demanding and the drive to win is still there – he isn't perfect – but he is trying.

"I'm telling you, Danny," he said. "I've changed, even if you don't believe me."

A year ago at this time, he was embroiled in about five feuds, including the fallout from a heated game against Rutgers that got both Hill and him reprimanded by commissioner Mike Tranghese. Gonzo was suspended for this year's Big East opener, coincidentally against Syracuse. He had to watch that loss from the team hotel.

Tuesday he was willing to joke about it to the media.

"I've tried to behave since then," he said, laughing.

If he can continue to do that, then the program has a brilliant future. He found that patience has worked with this crew. The trust is better. The relationships too. He called it one of his favorite groups ever.

"You know, I love our guys," he said. "They're my guys, city guys."

With the victory earned, Step 1 of this week scaled, he dealt with a small onslaught of New York media, tried to figure out whether to have his team sleep in or shoot around (he chose sleep), and then hustled across 8th Avenue and jumped on the team bus.

Before he sat down, he was already planning Wednesday's walkthrough with his assistant coaches, talking about the matchups. Some of them are brutal, such as putting thin, 6-foot-6 Robert Mitchell on the Orange's powerful 6-9, 240-pound Rick Jackson.

"Robert weighs 165 pounds," Gonzo said, only slightly exaggerating. "Rick Jackson could use Robert Mitchell to beat on somebody."

He slunk back in his seat and laughed; an underdog team, an impossible road, a new feeling of momentum. The bus was rolling through Times Square on the way back to the hotel. This is the good stuff.

"Hey, we've got a puncher's chance," he said. "A puncher's chance. This is fun. Isn't it fun?"

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