Seton Hall concluded their 2012-13 season yesterday the best way they knew how: fighting. The Pirates traded punches with the Syracuse Orange for 30 minutes of action before collapsing under the pressure of a deeper, superior team in the second round of the Big East Tournament.
Brian Oliver was visibly tired, picking up his fourth foul before the second half's under-12 television timeout. "We put a new defense in at the under-16 timeout. I saw Brian [Oliver] breaking down and I didn't want to hurt him anymore," explained head coach Kevin Willard. Gene Teague, who is a powerful example of an athlete, showed signs of fatigue in the form of missed put-backs. Team leader Fuquan Edwin, a shifty slasher in the open court, missed two free throws, committed his third and fourth fouls, and turned the ball over all in a few minutes midway through the second half.
The team was exhausted, spent. It had just played a grueling, for everyone involved, slugfest against South Florida just over 15-hours prior. "They played the same way they've played all year: a lot of heart, a lot of pride. The turnaround time really hurt us, because we didn't come out of last night's game very healthy," said Willard, whose team was nursing two fresh injuries to Brian Oliver (calf) and Haralds Karlis (laceration) from the night before.
"These guys did what they did all year-round. It's tough to explain as a coach to normal people how proud I am of these guys. No one has been in our locker-room, no one has been in our practices. These guys, all year-round, gave unbelievable effort, unbelievable attitude and were playing like we did tonight usually like we did all year, with six guys. Tonight doesn't shock me. They've done this all year," glowed Willard in the depths of Madison Square Garden.
Seton Hall struggled with injuries from day one when combo guard Aaron Cosby suffered a sprained MCL which held him out of some pre-season activities and opening night against UMKC at Walsh Gymnasium.
Then, starting power forward Brandon Mobley suffered a hyper-extension and bone bruise in his knee early on against Washington at Mohegan Sun. Mobley's injury preluded the reinjuring of his shoulder against Providence in Janurary. Eyeing a tough season, Brandon was eventually shut down for the rest of the campaign and put under the knife to repair his damaged shoulder after playing at Rutgers. Mobley's pair of injuries sandwiched a crippling broken fifth metatarsal to fellow power forward Patrik Auda in an innocent looking play against Maine.
While these three injuries were headliners, Haralds Karlis played through an invisible groin hernia and suffered a laceration to his face that forced him to wear a Stan Gaines-looking mask against Syracuse yesterday. Back-up centers Aaron Geramipoor and Kevin Johnson were sidelined for several games in late-December, early-Janurary, for a stress-fracture in the foot and a torn meniscus, respectively. Lastly, reserve point guard Freddie Wilson decided to transfer during winter break, further depleting Seton Hall's depth.
"Aaron Cosby tore his MCL in lay-up lines. Brian Oliver blew his ankle out coming down on someone's ankle. Brandon Mobley popped his shoulder out on a defensive close out. Patrik [Auda] broke his foot when he got shoved. I don't think we were worn down, we just had injuries that were.... kind of freak injuries. Brandon, his shoulder, was a big one and Patrik's was a big one. Once those two guys went down [long pause]. Big Kev [Kevin Johnson] also tore his meniscus," elaborated Willard, who chalked up his team's injury struggles to misfortune.
"They were tough injuries. It wasn't like guys were pulling hamstrings. We didn't have any pulled groins, we had major disasters. We had guys break their foot. We had guys tear their shoulder out. We had guys blow out every ligament in their ankle. We had guys tear their MCL. "
Willard was publicly tough on some his injured players by questioning the legitimacy of Brian Oliver and Aaron Geramipoor's injuries. However, he seemed to recant those statements yesterday. "My frustration, I didn't handle that well. I put it on those guys a little bit sometimes. But it wasn't like "Hey, you know what, maybe we're practicing too long," or we're lifting too much. It was things we really couldn't control," said Willard.
Now, all of that is water under the bridge for Kevin Willard and his players as they look toward next season with a healthier team. "I'm looking forward to being with these guys again and not having to deal with what we had to deal with all year-round," said Willard, optimistically. "I'm sure they're looking forward to not going into every game and wondering "Who's going to play power forward? Who's going to play small forward? Do we have seven guys? Do we have six guys? What offense do we run?""
Off the court, Seton Hall is making the well-publicized switch to a "new" Big East along with the rest of the Catholic 7 and likely three other mid-majors. While many fans and media members have made the conference realignment into a big deal, Kevin Willard isn't as convinced. "It's really not a new league, it's kind of just like a restart. Being able to come back here next year and play in the Garden -- it's a great treat. I'll have four seniors next year [junior Patrik Auda is expected to receive a medical redshirt for this past season]. To play their last tournament here will be really exciting."
Despite the similarities between old and new conferences, Willard expressed his optimism about the composition of the "new" Big East. "Obviously the new league is really exciting because it's going to be a basketball league, not a football league. All the schools are really excited that the focus is going to be on basketball."
So, with the hope of healed wounds, retention of current players (Aaron Cosby told reporters after yesterday's game that he is unsure of his future), and a brand new basketball-only conference, there appears to be nowhere to go but up. "I usually don't get emotional at the end of the year," began Willard, visibly distraught. "This one hurts because it was such a frustrating year. I kind of knew how we could have been all year if we'd been healthy, and I feel bad for these guys because they had to deal with a lot of negativity, a lot of frustration."
"I don't feel like this group has to prove anything," stated Kevin Willard. "If anything, people should be proud of the effort they gave all year under the circumstances that we've had."
We are coach. We are.