Seton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs will get most of the accolades for the Pirates' 84-80 win over Illinois State in the Paradise Jam final last night, as he should. Gibbs played like a man possessed for long stretches of the game and his career-high 40 points, a total that shattered his previous mark of 27, undoubtedly carried Seton Hall (4-0) past a resilient Illinois State (2-2) team on Monday night.
Gibbs is now a bonafide outside shooter. I tweeted this early during the Gardner-Webb game, but now it's officially official. As you'll see in the quotes section, Sterling put a lot of time into his outside shot after shooting a decent 31-of-90 (34%) clip last season, although he was never really considered a threat from beyond the perimeter. Now that Gibbs has blow-by speed and the ability to force defenders to cover him tighter, all sorts of possibilities arise for both him and his teammates offensively.
Isaiah Whitehead played his best game yet, which isn't exactly saying much since he has struggled. Still, the Abraham Lincoln star found his teammates in uncanny ways last night, resulting in six assists while proving capable of breaking presses and knocking down meaningful free throws (7-of-8). Whitehead (18 pts, 6 asts, 6 TOs) also scored on two NBA-like shots, a mid-range bank shot off glass and a highly contested teardrop from right around the same area, proving he has ability that not many guys at this level have. It must be mentioned that despite his ability to set up teammates, Isaiah is quite turnover prone, which should only improve with experience.
What's to make of Seton Hall jumping out to large leads and then relinquishing them? Willard's team is now playing in a style that is somewhat opposite of what happened in years past: Seton Hall would start slow and find themselves in a hole, then dig out of it valiantly just to fall short, a la the road game at Marquette last year. In a way, it's certainly a good sign that the Pirates have been able to jump all over inferior opponents like Nevada and Gardner-Webb and easily produce 20-point cushions. But it's also somewhat worrying that these same teams have been able to claw their way back, perhaps due to inexperience on Seton Hall's part, though I'm not entirely convinced Nevada, Gardner-Webb, or even Illinois State's comebacks could have been sustained. After all, none of those teams came closer than two possessions away from taking a lead: Nevada was down 6 on a Seton Hall inbounds pass with 1:06 and Illinois State was down 5 with :44 to play on a Seton Hall inbounds pass. Not to mention the Redbirds were 5-of-6 from three in the last two minutes.
The free throw situation needs to be solved. Illinois State finally figured out that fouling Angel Delgado late in a game, or at any point really, is almost equivalent to a forced turnover at the expense of a foul. I'm sure Willard will have Angel in the gym shooting free throws all week, but his percentage won't improve overnight. The staff needs to figure out something to mask this glaring deficiency, especially down the stretch of games, and get the ball in the hands of Gibbs, Sina, Whitehead or even Brandon Mobley and Rashed Anthony. I'm not sure what the tactical move is in this case, but Delgado at the free throw line is arguably worse than a turnover at this point as it must affect his overall confidence.
How about Bobby Hunter? The former Seton Hall junior college recruiting target played quite the game last night, tallying his own career high of 23 points (4-7 3pt) while playing against Gibbs. Hunter played big-time minutes last season but for some reason was relegated to a sixth man role over the first three games this year. Perhaps Illinois State head coach Dan Muller will rethink that decision after last night.
Five (and-one) quotes:
On Sterling Gibbs developing his outside shot: "You've got to give players credit and he put in a lot of work this summer, a lot of work in the gym, individual instruction, when we weren't doing individual he was in the gym. He's gotten strong now - everyone forgets, last year he hadn't played, he sat out a year, didn't play at Texas that much. Now you're seeing someone who's very confident about the work he's done, a lot of kids are confident and don't work, he's confident and he works [...] He deserves what he's getting, he played great."
Whitehead's play: "I thought Isaiah really carried us through a tough stretch when we were struggling."
On Sina, Gibbs, and Whitehead carrying the load: "You look at the minutes they played [...] it's a lot of minutes for three guys in your third game [in four days]."
On the flow of the game: "We did a really good job to start the game and then we lost our focus. Coach Pitino used to yell at me profusely, every day, that all I wanted to do was work on defense, defense, defense and we spent most of our walkthroughs on defense. And this year I've spent most of our walkthroughs on offense. I've got to give the staff credit, we recognized that they played a 1-3-1 zone, it's not a 2-3, then they morph into a 2-3 at times when their big fellow went out. We recognized it and showed our guys the corners are open, you've got to get to the corners and they listened offensively. When they switched up on us (from zone to man), I didn't have a good clue of what we could do because we hadn't really worked against pressure."
How Seton Hall handled Illinois State's pressure: "We didn't handle it as good as I thought we would with three guards out there, but that was a little bit of a lack of preparation [...] They had a 5-11 guy on Sterling, a 5-10 guy on Jaren and a 6-6 guy on Isaiah, that's not going to work for us. Those two guards for Illinois State are tough, you're not going to beat them off the dribble."
On if these wins will increase attendance going forward: "We have a big homestand now. Obviously GW is a heck of a basketball team, beat Rutgers and had UVA scared for awhile. Our next four games are brutal, so we need a good crowd, it's a Saturday 4 o'clock game during Thanksgiving break, you'd rather be at the Rock than at the mall."