Well, after the first half was the best half of basketball that the Pirates have played so far this year, they had to balance it out with the worst half of the year so far.
We all know the particulars- Seton Hall blew a 14-point halftime lead at home to a very good and athletic Dayton squad to make Sunday's game against Richmond a must-win game if the Pirates have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament. A lot of people think those chances flew away like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve after this loss. I am not one of them, but another loss to Richmond would change that for me.
On to the thoughts!
Coach Willard and several of the players I talked to after the game expressed that there were several positives that they would accentuate. Namely, the entire first half if I had to guess. But in truth, the best half of basketball that Seton Hall has played all season long had several positives, and while the mood was far from festive afterward at the press conference and in the locker room, the general sense was that this wasn't the end of the world.
- Polynice's Emergence
One of those positives was the play of Eniel Polynice in the first half. His stat line was eye-popping, and he showed all the Pirates fans in attendance at the Rock why he was recruited to Ole Miss. He can do all the little things- defend, get his hands in passing lanes, create in the lane if necessary, rarely make mistakes, hustle- and he did almost all of those in the first half. He showed encouraging signs that his transferring to Seton Hall won't be overlooked later in the season.
- The Coaching
Ok, on to the negatives. Coach Willard is a nice guy. And until now, I have had no reason to criticize his coaching this season. And then last night happened.
The Pirates switched from a press into a 2-3 zone about 5-6 minutes into the game, and boy did it work. Dayton was confused and stale on offense when the Pirates forced them into the halfcourt (something that Seton Hall saw done to them last year), and it was the chief reason why the Pirates jumped out to that lead. Polynice's play at the top of that zone led to all his production.
But in the second half, not only was Polynice back on the bench (a decision that is defensible considering that he played heavy minutes in the first half), but the Pirates opened up in man defense (a decision that is much less defensible). WHY OPEN UP IN MAN WHEN THE ZONE WORKED SO BEAUTIFULLY IN THE FIRST HALF?
The results of that decision were obvious as Dayton used their athleticism to trim the lead down. Then Willard made another questionable decision- using Polynice at the point with no other ball handler on the court. The Flyers were able to take full advantage of this by throwing on a press that all but completed the comeback.
Again, I like the guy. I think he's the right coach for this team and this program. But when decisions like these are made, I have to question them.
- Foul Trouble
After the transfer of Ferrakohn Hall, the first thought that came to mind was, "Uh oh, what if we get in foul trouble?" Well, we just found out. Patrik Auda fouled out, Herb Pope had 4 personals and Jeff Robinson had 3, but it seemed like more after he played just 4 minutes in the first half due to 2 quick personals. I brought it up in the press conference, asking Willard if using Anali Okoloji was an option to try to buy some minutes for the guys in foul trouble. He said that he would have, but since Polynice was playing so well, he chose not to. He also said he thought he played Pope too many minutes in the first half, and him cramping up was a result of that.
With a thin frontcourt, the Pirates MUST utilize Okoloji if to be nothing more than 5 extra fouls. The kid already hustles for everything he gets, so why not let him use it in a game? I understand that of the current recruiting class, he is probably the least Big East ready, but at the very least he could be Mike Davis/Brandon Walters and just be a body that can spell the main post guys. Call me crazy, but when you don't have depth, you have to make the most of the depth you do have.
I spoke with Jordan after the game, and he was quick to put a lot of this loss on himself. "I didn't make plays in the second half," he said, and to a point he is right. He shot a poor percentage in the second half, and looked like he was forcing it a little too much. He also said that when his teammates pick him up like that (mentioning Polynice in that statement) he has to play better.
Boy is this good to hear. Theodore is already very mature, but this really sounds good. He didn't put blame on anyone but himself and wanted to play better for his teammates. As the unquestioned leader with Hazell out, it's a good thing that he's taking the responsibility that goes along with the position. He is also quick to point out that it does not matter that Jeremy's still out or that Hall transferred. "The guys on the court have to make plays," Theodore said, "and I didn't do that tonight."
He's absolutely right. The guys on the court have to make plays. There's a reason they are on the court, the coaching staff believes that they are on the floor because they will make plays and produce. Seton Hall didn't get enough production in the second half. Simple, but sage words from the junior.
A win over the Spiders on Sunday is imperative if this team is to make the NCAAs. Contrary to popular belief, Seton Hall will not be granted a mulligan for their non-conference, non-Hazell exploits. They need a quality win, and Richmond is a quality team. Put up or Shut up time is in full swing, and this is the last chance that the Pirates have to prove they belong in the conversation.