Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE
Seton Hall can win its way into the NCAA Tournament this week. It didn't have to be that way.
Seton Hall finished its regular season at 19-11 and on the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into the Big East tournament. Had you been a Pirates fan and read that sentence back in say, October, you would have signed on the dotted line. But that was before you knew the context. It changes everything.
Picked to finish 13th in the 16-team Big East, with just two seniors and in the second year of new coach Kevin Willard's tenure, Seton Hall wasn't supposed to be in the picture for the Big Dance when the season started. Then the wins started piling up. Reigning Final Four participant Virginia Commonwealth was a victim, as were quality sides St. Joe's and Dayton. When The Hall rebounded from a drubbing at the hands of then-No. 1 Syracuse to rattle off home wins over West Virginia and UConn, the talk started. Could Seton Hall keep this up? And if they could, could they end up you know where?
Less than a week after the UConn win, Seton Hall found itself nationally ranked for the first time since 2001. They won their first game as a ranked side over DePaul to get to 15-2, one of the best starts in the past 20 years for the team. Then, it went south. Six straight losses, albeit to generally good competition, and the team was back where it started. The streaky Pirates responded to win four of their next five, including a landmark home win over No. 8 Georgetown. With two games left in the regular season, all Seton Hall needed to do was beat bottom dwellers Rutgers and DePaul, and they'd clinch a tournament berth for the first time since 2006.
Not so fast.
Two of the most crushing losses in the school's recent history have put the Pirates in a precarious position heading into Tuesday's Big East Tournament opener against Providence. The Pirates likely need two victories to ensure that their name be called on Sunday. A loss to Providence ends the Pirates' hopes. A win over the Friars and a loss to 7 seed Louisville, and they'll have to sweat it out.
It's unfortunate because tournament appearances for Seton Hall have been few and far between. Willard finally has the program seemingly in the right direction after the tumultuous tenure of Bobby Gonzalez. He's brought a sense of team unity, hard work and respectability back to the program. But the team relies heavily on its two seniors, guard Jordan Theodore and forward Herb Pope. With the duo graduating after this season, the Pirates will be a question mark heading into next season.
But despite the late season slide, the season isn't over. The careers of Theodore and Pope have yet to be written. It's teetering on the edge, but the Pirates' destiny remains in their hands. Entering the Big East Tournament, they are squarely on the bubble. If they can find a way to reclaim the form that saw them jump out to a 15-2 record, that helped them defeat quality teams all season, then they have a great chance to win a few games and secure a bid.
It would be a great way for Theodore and Pope to end their careers. For Willard, it would be a landmark achievement in the second year of what's expected to be a long process of getting Seton Hall back to national prominence. A loss to Providence and an NIT bid? Perhaps it would be a learning experience for the young Pirates, for Willard and his coaching staff.
Yet for a team that had everything in its grasp just two weeks ago, it won't feel any good.