NEWARK, N.J. – Way back in 1989, when the Big East was smaller in size but larger than life, one whistle whiplashed P.J. Carlesimo’s program from NCAA lore to infamy in the national championship game. Clinging to a one-point lead in overtime, the Pirates were seconds from winning the national title when referee John Clougherty’s questionable block call led directly to Rumeal Robinson’s two free throws and Michigan’s 80-79 victory.
More than 30 years later, Seton Hall finds itself with perhaps its best chance to get the ending right. Stewarded by coach Kevin Willard, the program is on the cusp of its fifth straight NCAA tournament. It’s still leading in the Big East despite a mini February funk and boasts a roster capable of bullying its way to the Final Four.
The Pirates have one of the sport’s elite players, senior guard Myles Powell, and a menacing supporting cast that would be a No. 1 seed if the NCAA tournament was seeded for an MMA fight. In a year when the top of the college basketball world is flat, the field of Final Four contenders is more crowded than the Democratic debate stage.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that No. 16 Seton Hall (19-7) looms as one of the most difficult outs in the NCAA tournament. The Pirates have awakened the feel-good vibes of yesteryear and emerged as a national title threat in large part because Willard has stayed steadfast to a simple program-building model: “We’ve had really, really good college basketball players who’ve developed.”
This year’s NCAA tournament projects to be the most wide-open since 2011, the year that No. 8 seed Butler and No. 11 seed VCU crashed a Final Four which No. 3 Connecticut eventually won. Nearly a decade later, the game has changed so radically because of the massive talent exodus to the NBA and G League that the best high-major teams in college basketball are actually constructed like the bracket-busting mid-majors from a decade ago. They rely on age, experience and continuity – the experience and cohesion trumping elite players toe-tapping in the sport for a few months.
In a year with no definitive Final Four favorites, Seton Hall is one of the smartest picks outside the top 10 to reach the Final Four. “I don’t think there’s that dominant, talented team out there,” Xavier coach Travis Steele said. “The teams that are older and have the toughness element can make a deep, deep run. Seton Hall has both.”
Powell’s explosive scoring (21.7 ppg, including 37 against Michigan State) and point guard Quincy McKnight’s crafty playmaking (5.4 assists) begin any conversation about Seton Hall’s personnel. And the skill of the Big East’s best backcourt is buttressed by incredible size.
Both Xavier’s Steele and Stony Brook’s Geno Ford pointed out that Seton Hall’s size needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. The Seton Hall frontcourt is like a skyline of sequoias, with a deep cast of length, girth and height that’s hard to replicate anywhere outside of Florida State.
Seton Hall 7-foot-2 center Romaro Gill may be the longest player in college basketball, as he can seemingly hug the equator with his 7-foot-8 wingspan. (He also leads the Big East and is third nationally with 3.5 blocks per game.) Skilled 6-foot-11 forward Sandro Mamukelashvili has some of the league’s sharpest elbows. Backups Tyrese Samuel (6-foot-10, 220) and Ike Obiagu (7-foot-2, 265 pounds) give Seton Hall enough muscle that it could trade blows in the six-foul Big East era of the early 1990s. “The personality of their whole team is toughness,” Ford said. “They overwhelm you with their size and physicality.”
Which leads to one of Seton Hall’s calling cards – there’s no need for bouncers to ask them for IDs. Both McKnight and Powell are 22, Gill is 25 and Mamukelashvili is 21. This is not a group that will flinch amid March momentum twists.
Willard willingly contends that this Seton Hall team has a higher ceiling than the four previous units he’s guided to the NCAA tournament. None of those teams were higher than a No. 6 seed, and none made it past the second round.
Seton Hall is first in the Big East standings after beating No. 21 Butler in a thriller on a last-second tip-in on Wednesday. They have outside victories of note, including over then-No. 7 Maryland, 52-48, without Powell back in December. They also knocked off Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse when the Bulldogs were ranked fifth and have no garish losses this season, at one point ripping off 10 straight wins from mid-December through the end of January.
Willard has always carried a healthy sense of Northeastern cynicism, which has left him resisting the nostalgia from 1989. He quotes his old boss, Rick Pitino, about embracing the “precious present” with this group.
“Enjoy this moment, enjoy this moment” Willard told Yahoo Sports. “I wasn’t around in 1989 and I don’t think these guys were alive. I’m really enjoying a group of guys who work hard and like to play together. That’s where I’m living.”
Willard’s best team at Seton Hall still retains the program’s defiantly unsexy image. Powell was mocked for being overweight in high school, Gill is a JUCO transfer and McKnight’s journey began at Sacred Heart.
The Pirates play their home games in a sterile NHL arena in downtown Newark, which boasts all of the charm and none of the shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy of a New Jersey transit commute. Even the Pirate mascot has an eye patch and assorted rips in the knees of his costume.
But winning still trumps sex appeal, and this season has trended from promising to potentially historic. Pirate athletic director Bryan Felt has seen the arena fill like the old days. He’s noticed a surge in program pride around North Jersey—gear, magnet stickers on cars, general buzz — accompanied by a higher level of postseason anticipation. “There’s a sense of pride,” Felt said. “You feel it.”
And that will only increase if these Pirates, who’ve been constructed to survive a new era of college basketball, can claw their way to Atlanta. In a flat season in college basketball, don’t be surprised if nostalgia overflows as the Pirates try again to get the ending right.
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