Seton Hall growing up a year ahead of schedule

No one was expecting Seton Hall to take down two top 20 teams, including No. 6 Villanova, at the start of Big East Conference play.

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Forget talking about restricting this comparison to only the Big East: There’s not another team in the nation that had a more impressive beginning to league play than Seton Hall did over the past several days.

What did Kevin Willard’s squad do? Oh, just put together the most impressive week in Seton Hall basketball in more than a decade.

The Pirates beat two ranked teams at home in their first two Big East games – No. 15 St. John’s followed by No. 6 Villanova in overtime. They did it without freshman phenom Isaiah Whitehead, who is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right foot. And they did it at what could hardly be seen as a better time, in a do-or-die year for the 39-year-old Willard.

Heading into conference play, I posed the question to Willard whether a hypothetical injury in Seton Hall’s rather thin frontcourt – like to freshman rebounding machine Angel Delgado, who is averaging close to a double-double – would have had a larger impact on Seton Hall than the Whitehead injury in this loaded backcourt. What Willard said was instructive – and I thought was a harbinger of doom for Seton Hall’s chances of making its first NCAA tournament since 2006.

“He’s got a tremendously high basketball IQ,” Willard told me about Whitehead. “Offensively, our depth should sustain (the injury) a bit. But defensively, it hurts us more because we’re losing that basketball IQ.”

I looked at the beginning of Seton Hall’s Big East schedule – home games against the two highest-ranked teams in the conference, then on the road against a tough Xavier team – and thought winning one of those three games without Whitehead would be considered a raging success.

Boy, was I wrong.

Willard can thank one person, and it’s not anyone from his vaunted Whitehead-led recruiting class that put Seton Hall back on the map before this season.

WHO'S UP, WHO'S DOWN?

It’s the dynamic junior guard Sterling Gibbs. Gibbs is 17th in the nation in offensive rating, according to KenPom.com. He’s averaging 16.6 points, dropped 40 in a game earlier this season, is shooting an astounding (and likely unsustainable) 50 percent from three-point range and so captured the attention of Villanova coach Jay Wright on Saturday that Villanova spent much of the second half and overtime of trapping Gibbs as soon as he brought the ball over halfcourt, trying to get the ball in anyone’s hands but his.

It’s patently true that no coach in college basketball has had a better week than Willard; the only one who may be close is Mark Turgeon, whose 12th-ranked Maryland team knocked off Michigan State on the road and Minnesota at home in its first two games in the Big Ten, proving its surprising non-conference season was no fluke.

And it’s not too early to think Seton Hall looks like it will be one of the as many as six teams from the Big East that will be playing in the NCAA tournament. That would be an absolutely enormous achievement for Willard. His job is the toughest in the Big East, save for maybe Oliver Purnell’s at DePaul. In four years at Seton Hall, Willard has made one NIT appearance – and missed every other postseason. He’s still a well-regarded young coach, but when he jumped from Iona to Seton Hall, he didn’t realize exactly how tough the Seton Hall job is.

Getting Whitehead to come to South Orange was a much-publicized coup for Willard, especially when mixed in with fellow freshmen Delgado, Desi Rodriguez – Whitehead’s high school teammate – and Khadeen Carrington, a guard from Brooklyn who has stepped up big time in Whitehead’s absence. (Carrington scored a career-high 17 against Villanova.)

But it’s been older players like Gibbs, sophomore guard Jaren Sina and senior forward Brandon Mobley who’ve held Seton Hall together since its star freshman’s injury. It’s a roster dominated by players from New York and New Jersey, an intentional effort by Willard to own his backyard.

Do I think Seton Hall will continue to be ranked in the Top 25 all season, as it surely will be when the newest poll is released Monday? I doubt it. Even after Whitehead comes back, some of Seton Hall’s luck will run out. Teams like Villanova don’t often make five of 24 three-pointers as the Wildcats did this weekend. Sure, part of that is great perimeter defense by Seton Hall even in Whitehead’s absence, but the fact that opponents are currently shooting 25.9 percent from three against the Pirates – good for the fourth-lowest in the nation – won’t last into March.

Still, there is not a bad defeat on Seton Hall’s resume – just road losses to Wichita State and Georgia – and there are several good wins. Before Villanova and St. John’s, the Pirates had already beaten George Washington, a likely NCAA tournament team; a power conference team in Rutgers; and Illinois State, which will be competitive in the Missouri Valley.

All this from a team that ranks 328th in the nation in experience, according to KenPom.com.

Before the season, I went to see Seton Hall practice, and I asked Willard how he expected the six-man recruiting class that he’ll rely on for his future employment to adapt to the college game. He said that since most of the freshmen played together and were friends in high school, they already had incredible chemistry coming into college.

“There aren’t any surprises,” he told me.

A few months later, after an impressive non-conference record was buttressed by two statement wins at the beginning of Big East play, there is one big surprise: that Seton Hall is playing this well this soon – and with its most dynamic talent sitting on the bench with his foot in a boot. That’s no harbinger of doom. That’s a harbinger of a team that will be playing in the NCAA tournament a year ahead of schedule.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.