For a roster that is predominantly new players, eight to be exact, there was bound to be a few growing pains for Seton Hall in their exhibition against Caldwell College (D-II). After carrying a narrow 41-39 lead into the half, Seton Hall shifted into another gear after the break and dispatched of a pesky Cougar squad 96-68 this afternoon at Walsh Gym in South Orange, N.J.
Led by junior point guard Sterling Gibbs' team-high 19 points on an efficient 7-of-8 from the field, the Pirates put their higher tempo, three-guard look on display for the first time and it wore Caldwell down in the second half after the Cougars put a number on Seton Hall's defense before the break.
Starting alongside Gibbs, Jaren Sina scored 14 and dished five assists while Isaiah Whitehead had eight points, five dimes, four rebounds, and three steals on 3-of-12 shooting. Whitehead looked confident and outside of a few overly-ambitious passes, played within himself. The McDonald's All-American was a couple near-misses away from being the fifth Pirate in double figures on the day, including a faked behind-the-back pass on a drive to the paint that resulted in a shot that fell off the rim.
"It was a lot better than I thought it was going to be," said Willard of Whitehead's debut. "He's got a lot of pressure on him, everyone expects unbelievable things and I think once he kind of gets into his rhythm and gets past the nerves a little bit, you're going to see a lot better numbers."
For the most part, Whitehead played off the ball for Seton Hall while Sina and Gibbs occupied dual point guard roles. He missed a few open shots early on, but wound up finding a groove as the game progressed.
"I felt great. I took great shots, I didn't force anything, it's just about taking good shots and finding my teammates," said Whitehead post-game. "I think once I saw that my shot wasn't falling, I tried to find my teammates as much as possible and I think I succeeded at that."
While the trio of starting guards in Gibbs, Sina, and Whitehead registered 41 of the Hall's 96 total points, it was the production of freshman power forward Angel Delgado and forward Desi Rodriguez that was more surprising on the day. Delgado was a focal point for Seton Hall's offense early and often by being a nuisance on the offensive glass. Delgado displayed a few impressive back-to-the-basket moves including an up and under on the baseline and a countering floater toward the the free throw line over his defender. His 14-point, seven-rebound (five offensive), and three-block outing had Whitehead calling him a "monster" after the game.
"I thought Angel played really well. He's just got a knack of finding the basketball and going and getting the basketball," praised Kevin Willlard ."He's a better free throw shooter than he shot it [0-6], so I mean if he makes his free throws then he has a really good night. I thought he played really well."
As for Desi Rodriguez, a highly-efficient 14 points and 10 rebounds in 13 minutes while playing at the "four" was just as impressive as Delgado's performance. Rodriguez did his damage early by snaring four of his boards on the offensive glass and translating these into early buckets. This was something that I observed Willard demanding of Desi while at practice during Seton Hall Media Day.
"Thats where Desi's going to play this year," said Willard of Rodriguez at the "four". "He's going to find his minutes behind Brandon [Mobley] and I think he's a nice compliment to Brandon because he's different. He's a little bit more of a junkyard dog where Brandon is more of finesse player."
Seton Hall's guards will undoubtedly score a high-percentage of their points this year, but if they are to take it to the next level against better competition, points must be found from guys like Rodriguez and Delgado. So far, they've impressed.
"I've been telling guys since Media Day, this recruiting class isn't just me and they showed that today," said Isaiah Whitehead of Rodriguez, Delgado & Co.
While Gibbs, Sina, Delgado, and Rodriguez ultimately filled the box score, it wasn't easy for Seton Hall early on. As I expected, Caldwell center Michael Balkovic gave the Hall first half fits in the paint to the tune of a game-high 20 points along with 9 rebounds, 18 of which came before half. Balkovic did a number on all of Delgado, Brandon Mobley, and Rashed Anthony with his back to the basket and found space off of effective ball movement for a few easy buckets. If this was a precursor of a glaring weakness for Seton Hall this season, Mobley and Kevin Willard aren't saying as much.
"It was just jitters. Everybody was kind of nervous, everybody wanted to score a bucket and hear the crowd go crazy, things like that," described senior forward Brandon Mobley. "Once we settled in and focused on the defensive end instead of the offensive end, we was able to do whatever we wanted."
Willard agreed with Mobley, chalking the first half up to a lack of focus behind the ball.
"The first half was a lot of jitters and guys just running around and not thinking," narrated Willard. "I think the second half, everybody got their second wind and understood this is what we're doing, this is what we need to do. We didn't really make any adjustments, we just started playing defense a little bit.
"Although it was only a two-point game, the fact that we scored 41 points [in the first half], usually it's the other way around, if you're nervous you struggle offensively. I thought Jaren and Sterling kinda settled us down a little bit and made some shots and kinda kept us in there. Our press wasnt very good but it did what it was supposed to do, in the second half they really got worn down and that was kind of the point, just wear 'em down, wear 'em down."
Fresh off of Seton Hall's 55-point blitz in the second half, Isaiah Whitehead wasn't as anxious post-game as you think he would be for the Hall's season-opener against Mercer next Sunday.
"Not exactly. We saw today in the first half that we have a lot to work on. We're going to come into these next few practices and try to key into those things that made us only up two at halftime. Just trying to make everything sharp and everything come together."