|Jordan Theodore had 13 assists, one shy of the Big East record, Tuesday night. (US Presswire)|
By Matt Norlander
NEW YORK — With a no-doubt-about-it 79-47 win over No. 15 Providence, did Seton Hall ensure itself of an NCAA tournament appearance Tuesday night?
The decision gave the Pirates their first 20-win season in eight years and only the third one in the past 19. This meant a lot to the program and a lot to Pirates head coach Kevin Willard, who probably won’t have a team with this much talent next season. So that means getting to 20 wins in 2013 will be more of a challenge than it was in 2012, and we now know how grueling this achievement turned into. The time is now to make an appearance in the NCAAs and advance the program forward for its second-year coach.
If Seton Hall wants history on its side, it’s got it. In 152 occurrences when Big East teams have won 20 games in a season, 147 of those have earned a dance ticket.
Almost nearly as impressive as the win was the way Seton Hall shed its DePaul hangover. The Pirates were embarrassed in their season finale 86-58 against the Blue Demons. The loss put the team’s postseason tournaments in doubt; lots of bubble teams have bad losses, but did any from a major conference has a loss as bad as that one? If so, I want to see evidence you found.
So on Tuesday night, fresh off that lashing by DePaul, Seton Hall opened up the game with a scoreless first five minutes. Uh-oh? No, no. After trailing 9-0, the Pirates put up 2.26 points per minute and made the game a laugher by halftime, when they led 36-23.
"Our total body of work is pretty darn good," Willard said. "I think I have two of the better seniors in the country. That last two games before this game, we played a real tough rival (Rutgers), Senior Night, who needed a win. And then the other night at DePaul they played real well and we just struggled. The overall body of work I think is pretty good.”
Jordan Theodore’s body of work Tuesday night stood out from everyone. The Seton Hall senior point guard had 13 assists, one shy of the Big East tournament record. He looked good making all those passes and committing only one turnover. If his team was that good consistently, well heck, we know the Pirates would be playing for a seed instead of a bid — and they wouldn’t be doing it in the opening round of the Big East bracket.
"To be honest, I have talked about the NCAA all season, but before this game, it wasn’t on my mind," Theodore said. "The only thing I was worried about was leading my team and coming in here and getting a win."
That’s believable, if for no other reason that Theodore’s performance. Then again, how couldn’t he and fellow senior Herb Pope have urgency in a game like this? How couldn't he have the circumstances factor in? The Selection Committee was watching, and the magnifying glass is in their hands with every possession now.
"I hope they seen that the Pirates is not the team that was at DePaul," Theodore said.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Seton Hall, so much so I’m not sure the mood swings and losing streaks have affected others like the Pirates, who continually are trying to crawl out of the Big East’s basement. It's not only a schedule the team's trying to beat, it's a culture, a reputatoin. Willard’s had help along the way. Two fellow league coaches, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin and Rick Pitino of Louisville, have been therapists throughout, even when those coaches’ teams have failed them many times this year.
"I’m a little different in this league, from the fact that I worked with Mick Cronin. We vacation together every summer," Willard said, while I lifted my head from typing this quote with a response of shock and confusion.
Willard added that he talked to Pitino and Cronin every week for much of this season, especially recently. Pitino is his mentor, a guy Willard worked with for a decade, so the willing ear was relieving.
"He was great this year, when we were struggling … he called me twice during that stretch, which is unheard of in this league," Willard said.
On Wednesday, Willard gets to coach against Pitino. That will be tough, a little awkward, and the ideal latest challenge for his team, which would be securely in the field if it gets one more win. The Cardinals and Pirates played once this season, on Jan. 28. Louisville won, 60-51. Twenty wins may be enough, but No. 21 could be the hardest for more reasons than Willard wants to think about.