There's no way around it: Seton Hall was handicapped at guard last year.
Despite an explosively-quick Sterling Gibbs, who seemingly drew foul contact on every drive to the hoop and a budding talent in freshman combo guard Jaren Sina at Kevin Willard's disposal, that was all he had. The transfer of shooting guard Aaron Cosby in the offseason to Illinois and the forceful yanking of pass-first guard Tom Maayan by the Israeli Defense Force shortly into last season left Seton Hall paper thin with guards like Haralds Karlis and Brian Oliver not suited for rock-handling roles.
Time and time again we saw limited defensive capabilities from Gibbs and Sina not strictly due to lack of ability, but because of lack of depth. As analyzed by Willard in my story on the Hall's frontcourt, he had protect his lone pair of guards from foul trouble.
This season, that won't be the case.
It's no secret that Sterling and Jaren have embraced leadership roles since the day after their loss to Providence in the Big East Tournament and even more so since the pack of freshmen moved onto campus this summer. Despite not being seniors, both guards logged as many minutes as physically possible last season, and with that comes experience by doing. While a detriment last season, Kevin Willard knows this asset will reap rewards in the near future.
"What I'm most excited this season is that I'm returning my two guards. I can rely on Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs. Not that I don't worry about them, but I don't worry about them. They've really helped Khadeen [Carrington] and Isaiah [Whitehead] tremendously. They've been unbelievable leaders to those young guards ... I'm really excited that I'm returning two veteran guards. Jaren and Sterling are not really the anchor for this team, they're the steering wheel, and the young guys are the motor."
Now wielding the bare necessity at guard: depth, Willard and Seton Hall can look toward expanding on both defensive and offensive schemes instead of primarily trying to finish a game with two guards not in foul trouble. One of the more obvious macro-changes that will be on display this season is a switch to three and four-guard lineups, something that was never really an option for Willard last season. "I think every game you'll see 3 or 4 guards out there," he announced yesterday. "We're going to play them all."
Something a little less tangible for the average fan will be a proactive dictating of the game toward opponents instead of reacting, like falling into early foul trouble and then switching to zone for example. "We're going to have to be able to match up with teams better, and teams are going to have to match up with us better," predicted Willard. Further, Seton Hall will be able to press on defense when desired, instead of when required by the scoreboard. The Hall found themselves taking the brunt of full court presses last season, much to their detriment.
As for the four individual guards that will see the most time in Willard's system, he thinks that they all possess well-rounded skill sets that will compliment each other. "Jaren can shoot 12 threes in a game, Jaren can get 12 assists in a game. Sterling can get to the free throw line 20 times, Isaiah can create, or post up, or come off screens. They don't just have one unique talent. All four of them have two or three things they can posses at any one time."
In addition to Gibbs and Sina, New York City freshman duo Khadeen Carrington and Isaiah Whitehead bring their own guard attributes to the Seton Hall table. Carrington is a high-volume shooter with plenty of range but also displayed the ability to create for himself and play more point guard with Rutgers sniper Mike Williams alongside at Bishop Loughlin. As for Whitehead, who was described as "very humble and very grounded" by Willard yesterday, everyone knows he's the complete package at guard and will be able to play the ‘one' through ‘three' spots for Willard.
Brandon Mobley vouched for the all-around game that Whitehead routinely displayed at Lincoln translating to the next level. "This kid right here man, he pretty much can do it all. His offensive skill set is off the charts. Defensively he can multiple positions as well ... His passing is great ... It's going to take him the first couple of games to get used to it, but once he gets started man, he's going to be tough to stop."
Most importantly for a guard fitting the All-American prototype, Whitehead has been billed as unselfish. "He's very unselfish, he's not a 'Me, me, me!' kid," professed Willard. "He shares the basketball, he shares his gear, he shares everything. He's just a very unselfish young man." Fittingly, Isaiah echoed that sentiment when I asked him about the brewing backcourt chemistry yesterday. "I think we can all fit in very well because we're all very unselfish, we're all unselfish players. If one of us is open, we're going to find the one that's open."
As a result of a well-balanced guard stable, Willard's Xs and Os potential grows, specifically on the offensive end. "With the guards, we're going to look to get into the paint differently this year," he diagramed. "Obviously off dribble penetration, off screens, things we probably couldn't do as much last year. We were a bigger, little bit slower, unathletic team last year. This year we're going to be a little bit quicker, a little bit faster, so our big guys are going to have opportunities created differently than last year."
While a quicker tempo is a natural and convenient media projection after an influx of two talented guards and an athletic wing in Desi Rodriguez, it's important to note that Willard's last three teams played at tempos of 183rd, 229th, and 204th, the equivalent of a moderate jog. Although it's very likely if not predetermined that Seton Hall will play faster this season, Willard was sure to temper expectations.
"[We won't play] as fast-paced as everyone thinks early on, just for the fact that we're young, we'll start with the training wheels on. Eventually as the season goes on, we'll take the training wheels off ... They have to understand how to play fast and I think that's a process they're going to have to get used to. Right now we're throwing the ball all over the gym trying to play fast, they've got to learn when to pick their spots when not to pick their spots and that's going to be a season-long thing. So dont look for just up and down straight out of the box, that's probably not going to happen."
It generally sounds like Seton Hall's offense will creep a bit toward the basket and paint area, even if the points aren't scored by forwards. This contrasts last season's heavy dose of high ball screens at the top of the arc and steady diet of three-pointers. Willard's last two teams have finished 42nd and 23rd in the country in percentage of three-pointers compared to overall field goal attempts (3PA/FGA). Yesterday, I questioned Willard on how the 240 attempted long-balls by Brian Oliver, who he described as probably the best three-point shooter he's ever worked with, and Fuquan Edwin will be replaced.
"We're not going to shoot as many threes as we did last year. Last year we shot a lot of threes because we had Eugene [Teague] in the middle and when you have a big man in there -- he got double-teamed a lot and the ball came inside to out a lot, so there was a lot of more opportunities to shoot threes ... I don't see us taking nearly as many threes as last year."
Coming full circle to lead guard Sterling Gibbs, who mustered 13.2 ppg, 4.2 apg and the country's 14th-best free throw rate through injuries, foul trouble, and no support outside of the usually sure-handed Jaren Sina last season, it must feel like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. For anyone who has swung a bat after using a donut or ran after using a weight vest, that subsequent relief will be experienced by Sterling this season.
"Sterling will be a much better player just from the experience he had - he played almost 34 mpg last year. He was responsible for creating offense for everybody else. This year I think he's going to be able to score a little bit easier, he's not going to have to be the only guy creating offense," predicted Willard.
From a pair of seasoned guards in Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs, who suffered from no cover during a grueling Big East campaign, to a duo of New York City's most talented guards, one a McDonald's All-American, it appears undeniable that Seton Hall will be able to punch back with more might in 2014-15. Even senior role players like Haralds Karlis, an energy guy, and Stephane Manga, a versatile wing, will supplement their underclassmen teammates with experience and know-how. Melded with an inexperienced frontcourt that shouldn't be relied upon for scoring this season, Kevin Willard must expect to wring a total north of 45 points per game from his backcourt in order compete with the likes of Villanova, St. John's, and Georgetown this season and enter the NCAA picture.