Pick a surprising team.
Wisconsin. Dayton. Ole Miss.
None of them have come out of nowhere quite like Seton Hall. None of them performed as poorly as the Pirates across the first five weeks of the season. And none of them have the wins that Shaheen Holloway’s team now has.
Top-ranked Connecticut and No. 17 Marquette at home. Providence and Butler on the road. Four Quad 1 wins, and it really should be five, if not for a very unfriendly whistle in the triple-overtime loss to No. 18 Creighton on Saturday in Newark.
This was a team that most experts felt would be successful if it reached the NIT. The Big East coaches picked Seton Hall to finish ninth in the league. I agreed with both sentiments. I was at Prudential Center on Dec. 9, when a bad Rutgers team overwhelmed the Pirates.
Seton Hall is 8-2 since that loss. It is safely in the NCAA Tournament according to almost all projections despite that underwhelming non-conference performance that included losses to Rutgers, USC and Iowa and a bubbly NET ranking of 60.
It has performed as well as anyone in the country over the last few weeks, just a game behind first-place UConn atop the Big East. Remember, it beat those Huskies when they were at full strength.
Kadary Richmond is a Big East Player of the Year front-runner, a dynamic lead guard who lives in the paint. Al-Amir Dawes and Dre Davis have emerged as quality second- and third- scoring options. Center Jaden Bediako, a Santa Clara transfer, hasn’t just surpassed expectations. He has lapped them, averaging career-highs of 8.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
But this is about the coach and the toughness he instills. He got through to Richmond about the importance of consistency as a leader. He has brought in players that fit him — hard-nosed guys such as Davis, Dawes, Bediako and St. John’s transfer Dylan Addae-Wusu.
Really, this shouldn’t be a surprise if you followed Holloway’s coaching arc. He was pivotal to Seton Hall’s emergence under former coach Kevin Willard as his lead recruiter and point guard developer. At Saint Peter’s, everyone remembers the remarkable Elite Eight run, but he also finished in the top three of the MAAC three times in four seasons with the conference’s worst facilities. That’s not easy to do.
His first season at the Jersey City school wasn’t great, a 10-22 campaign. Similar to his first year at Seton Hall, a 17-16 season and NIT berth. There were obviously adjustments Holloway had to make as a head coach in the Big East for the first time.
The reaction to that underwhelming year, and an offseason that wasn’t impressive on paper, set very low expectations from the outside for Seton Hall. There were no splash additions, although Bediako certainly was one in hindsight.
“I don’t think anyone in the country recruits better to fit their program than Shaheen Holloway and Seton Hall,” St. John’s associate head coach Steve Masiello said after Seton Hall whipped the Johnnies by 15 last Tuesday.
That has seemed to work in Holloway’s favor. His players have used it as ammunition. It has given this team an edge, an edge that has become the Pirates’ identity. They are physical and tough, together and determined. Relentlessly aggressive. The kind of team you don’t want to see in March.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the job that Holloway — the early Big East Coach of the Year favorite — has done is the uptick in production he’s gotten from his core seniors like Richmond, Dawes, Davis and Bediako. All are either having the best seasons of their careers or close to it. That speaks to player development and coaching, especially when you consider Richmond, Dawes and Davis were together last year, and didn’t come close to performing like this.
When Holloway guided Saint Peter’s to the Elite Eight, beating Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue in the process, he was seen as a rising star in the industry. Nearly two years later, that remains the case. This Seton Hall season very few people saw coming is a pretty good example of that.
Sunday was a bad day for fans of court-storming. There were two different incidents caught on camera.
An Ohio State fan ran into Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark, violently knocking her to the floor, and a Tulane fan pushed Memphis wing David Jones from behind. Fortunately, Clark wasn’t injured, Iowa announced, and Jones didn’t retaliate. But next time, it could be worse. Next time, there could be a major injury or a brawl.
Something has to be done to protect players — and that includes barring these postgame traditions, especially if stuff like this continues to happen. Someone’s season, or possibly career, is going to get ruined eventually.
Game of the Week:
No. 3 Kansas at No. 24 Iowa State, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
The Big 12 is an absolute minefield. Nine teams are in the top 40 of the NET rankings and the top seven teams in the league are separated by one game. Two of them will meet at Hilton Coliseum, where Iowa State is a perfect 11-0 on the season and recently knocked off fifth-ranked Houston. The battle of top-flight point guards between Kansas’ Dajuan Harris Jr. and Iowa State’s Tamin Lipsey will be must-see TV.
1: Purdue, Connecticut, Arizona, Houston
2: Kansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Auburn
3: Wisconsin, Kentucky, Baylor, Marquette
4: Creighton, Illinois, Alabama, Duke
Ivisic was worth the wait. After finally getting cleared by the NCAA, the 7-footer from Croatia dazzled in No. 8 Kentucky’s win over Georgia. Showing basically no rust, he was a difference-maker in 16 impactful minutes, scoring 13 points along with five rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists. Most impressive was his ability to handle the ball and shoot it from 3 — he was 3-of-4 from deep — giving already loaded Kentucky another offensive weapon.
A big star. Quality pieces around him. A rabid fan base that will travel. Dayton, which just broke into the Associated Press top-25 poll for the first time this season last week at No. 21, has all the makings of a big March threat. It is undefeated in the Atlantic 10, tied atop the conference with Richmond, and owns strong wins away from home over St. John’s and Cincinnati. It is ranked 12th in offensive efficiency behind future NBA forward DaRon Holmes II and with a 6-2 record in Quad 1 and 2 games and a NET ranking of 15, a quality seed is likely without too many missteps the rest of the way. Remember the Flyers when the bracket comes out in mid-March.
The Texas coach admonished several Central Florida players for doing the “Horns Down” gesture during the Knights’ victory at Texas on Wednesday, telling them their celebration was “classless.” Afterwards, Terry said that the Longhorns “expect to win. We don’t jump up and down, act like we won a national championship.” When they knocked off No. 9 Baylor on Saturday on Tyrese Hunter’s buzzer-beater, that’s exactly how Terry’s team acted. The lesson: Worry about your own team.
It’s North Carolina, Duke and very little else. It’s not crazy to think the ACC could be a two-bid league, even if Clemson is in the tournament right now based on most Bracketology projections. After the Tigers, there are no guarantees. Only three ACC teams are in the top 40 of the NET rankings and just the big two in the top 35 of KenPom. Wake Forest is a bubble team with an uneven résumé: Zero Quad 1 wins and four Quad 2 losses. Virginia, Virginia Tech and Miami are all on the fringes of the conversation, but with major work to do and very few needle-moving opportunities.