Seton Hall is Final Four-caliber team we’ve waited 21 years for
Every year around this time, there is hope.
Hope one of our local teams go on a run. Hope by March there is a team that can get hot and play deep into the month. Hope there is a program everyone can get behind.
This year, we have more than hope. We have realistic dreams. There is a team that doesn’t have to get lucky to win a tournament game or get the right draw to reach the Sweet 16.
Seton Hall looks like a legitimate Final Four contender — the first team from this area to have such high expectations since St. John’s 21 years ago. That team, led by Ron Artest, Erick Barkley and Lavor Postell, came within three points of the Final Four, ousted by Ohio State in the Elite Eight. It was a three-seed.
The highest seed for a local since was St. John’s getting a No. 2 in 2000, but it fell in the second round to Gonzaga, the 10th seed. Only the 1999-2000 Seton Hall team has reached the second weekend, and that group was a 10-seed that lost in the regional semifinals. It’s been a long drought.
These 12th-ranked Pirates are different. They are experienced and deep, well-coached and versatile. They can play big or go small. They have one of the premier players in the country in senior Myles Powell and emerging complementary scorers in Quincy McKnight, Jared Rhoden and Sandro Mamukelashvili. Center Romaro Gill is one of the premier shot-blockers in the country — he’s rejected 3.6 shots per game, third-most in the country — a key to the Pirates being ranked ninth in defensive efficiency. They have nine wins away from home and six Quadrant 1 road victories, the most in the country. Their 13 Quadrant 1 and 2 wins are the second-most in the nation, behind only Kansas’s 15. They have four wins over teams ranked in the top 24 of the NET, the ratings tools the selection committee relies on.
“I really think they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said on Saturday after losing to the Pirates, likening them to some of his best teams.
On Saturday’s NCAA Tournament bracket reveal five weeks and a day before Selection Sunday, Seton Hall was projected as a three-seed in the South Region, and then went out and knocked off No. 10 Villanova on the road. A two- or three-seed in the East, which would set them up to play at the Garden the second weekend of the tournament, is within grasp.
Everything has fallen into place for Seton Hall this year. Powell, a National Player of the Year candidate, flirted with the NBA and returned. Several key players have improved. There are no great teams in college basketball, nobody Seton Hall should fear. The road to the Final Four could be a local one: Albany followed by the Garden.
This is more than hope. Good fortune isn’t needed. Seton Hall has all the pieces — and the needed résumé — to give the area some real March memories. It’s been 21 years since that could be said about any team around here.
Take it queasy
With every loss, St. John’s fans seem to grow more skeptical of first-year coach Mike Anderson.
I get emails, text-messages and tweets about it. My message: Breathe. This was never going to be a quick fix, not after Justin Simon and Shamorie Ponds left early for the professional ranks.
This team, now 2-9 in the Big East and 13-11 overall, was picked ninth in the Big East by the league’s coaches because of a shortage of talent. Many of the players on this roster don’t fit Anderson’s pressing, up-tempo style. It’s his first year in the Big East and he’s learning the league.
I frequently hear a common refrain from St. John’s fans, that they’re tired of the losing. It’s been 20 years since the Johnnies last won an NCAA Tournament game. That’s not Anderson’s fault. He just got here.
Give him time, let him recruit. It’s not a coincidence he’s never had a losing season before in 17 previous seasons as a head coach, and I still don’t think he will wind up with one this year, either.
A Knight to remember
Hate him or love him. Bobby Knight deserved Saturday at Assembly Hall.
At 79 years of age, the former coach is dealing with health issues. But it was a day he will cherish, his long-awaited return to Indiana, where he coached for 29 seasons. Twenty years after his firing, he was back for the first time and received a warm ovation, surrounded by so many of his former players.
After he was sent packing from Indiana in 2000, Knight declined to return, skipping championship team reunions and even his induction into the Indiana Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009. But he moved back to the area in July and had gone to an Indiana baseball game last spring, a sign of the changing tide.
Knight won a school-record 662 games, 11 Big Ten championships, reached five Final Fours and led the Hoosiers to three national titles. He could be boorish, and his methods were at times over the top. Still, for nearly three decades he was Indiana basketball.
Game of the Week
No. 8 Florida State at No. 7 Duke, Monday, 7 p.m.
It’s a rarity when the ACC features a must-watch game — the league has fallen that far this year — but this certainly qualifies. The loser will fall two games behind No. 5 Louisville atop the ACC, while the winner remains right on the Cardinals’ tail for the league crown. Florida State is red-hot, having won 13 of its past 14 games — eight by double figures. Duke has won five in a row and will be riding high coming off its thrilling, come-from-behind overtime victory at bitter rival North Carolina.
1: Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga, San Diego State
2: Louisville, Duke, Seton Hall, Dayton
3: Maryland, Florida State, Oregon, West Virginia
4: Auburn, Penn State, Villanova, Colorado
Up: Samir Doughty
It feels like a lifetime ago Doughty was a St. John’s commit. It was actually five years ago. His career has been a whirlwind since. From decommitting after then-coach Steve Lavin was let go, ruled a partial qualifier his first season at VCU, transferring after a solid freshman year, and now being the leading scorer for one of the premier teams in the country after serving as a quality role player in Auburn’s run to the Final Four last year. The 6-foot-4 senior from Philadelphia has been one of the keys to the Tigers’ surprising run atop the SEC after losing three starters, averaging career-highs in points (15.5), rebounds (3.9) and assists (2.6).
Up: Mark Turgeon
Whenever Maryland slips, you hear the calls for his job. Well, now that the Terrapins are surging, it’s only fair for Turgeon to be credited. He has Maryland on its way to a fifth NCAA Tournament in seven years, atop the Big Ten — the best conference in the country this year — after an impressive win at No. 20 Illinois on Friday night. Ninth-ranked Maryland has three league road wins — that’s a lot in its conference — and has the kind of inside-out duo in Jalen Smith and Anthony Cowan Jr. that can make March magic. Nobody will ever confuse Turgeon with a brilliant tactician, but he has Maryland headed to its best regular season since reaching the Sweet 16 four years ago.
Down: North Carolina
The talent isn’t typical North Carolina. Star freshman Cole Anthony missed 11 games due to a knee injury. Understood. But the Tar Heels should not be 10-13. They should not have blown a 13-point lead with 4:40 remaining in regulation Saturday against Duke and they certainly shouldn’t have home losses to Wofford, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Clemson. You can blame coach Roy Williams. You can blame the players. Both are fair. The stain of this season, the worst in Chapel Hill in 18 years, since North Carolina won just eight games under Matt Doherty, is on everyone.
Indiana and Archie Miller have lost four straight games and are on the bubble in his third season. Arizona and Sean Miller lost at home to mediocre UCLA on Saturday and despite a strong NET ranking of 11, are far from safe because of a pedestrian résumé that includes just two Quadrant 1 wins. This was supposed to be a big year for both brothers after they missed the tournament last year. Instead, February is here, and neither team seems like it will be a factor in March.
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