By Jeff Goodman
No one was taking Seton Hall seriously. This was a team that had decent wins over VCU and St. Joe's and everyone else on its slate short of Northwestern, but it's body of work remained worthy of dispute.
But on Wednesday night, Herb Pope & Co. went into Dayton, an extremely underrated venue in terms of difficult and hostile establishments, and came away with a victory.
The Pirates now stand at 10-1.
Pope, who was in a coma and nearly died less than two years ago, has returned to the form that once made him one of the most dominant big men in the country. Jordan Theodore is finally showing what many anticipated from him long ago, when he was a highly recruited player back in high school.
And Kevin Willard finally has something to smile about.
Seton Hall struggled last season to a 13-18 record in its first year of the post-Bobby Gonzalez Era. Pope wasn't himself as his near-death experience in April of 2010 and Willard was unable to control the cast of characters that Gonzo had assembled. But now guys like Jeremy Hazell, Jeff Robinson and Keon Lawrence are all history -- and it's a far more peaceful environment in South Orange, N.J.
"It's a family environment now," Pope said. "That wasn't the case before. He (Gonzalez) wasn't a fatherly figure. He was all about basketball and it wasn't a learning atmosphere."
Now, Pope said, he is actually able to talk to his head coach. Knock on the door and actually hold a conversation.
"Every day I talk to Coach Willard," Pope said. "About life, family. He's helped me out so much. ... After what happened, he really helped me get back mentally."
On top of last year's struggles on the court, Willard was getting crushed with his lack of recruiting prowess. As nearby Rutgers made headlines with Mike Rice's commitments, Willard was hammered for his inability to get it done off the court.
While Willard hasn't stockpiled highly rated guys, sophomore forward and Czech native Patrik Auda and freshman guard Aaron Cosby were key in Wednesday's win at Dayton. Auda went for a career-high 18 points and Cosby finished with 13.
"Those young guys are letting us lead," Pope said. "And feeding off us."
Pope said that it's taken a while to adjust. He was getting used to a new coach a year ago while dealing with coming back from being in a hospital for nearly two months.
"Last year it was just great to be alive," Pope said. "This year is my last go-around. I want to go out with a bang."
Willard admitted that it wasn't an easy transition after he took the reigns, but that Pope has come so far in just about every area.
"No one really understood how serious the heart ailment affected him last year. He was never physically right," Willard said. "He's playing like the best big man in the country right now -- and Jordan is playing like one of the best point guards."
It's hard to argue. Pope is averaging 21.4 points and 11.5 boards while Theodore is putting up 14.8 points and has 82 assists and just 29 turnovers.
"It's no secret that these guys are the key to our team," Willard said.
Actually, the key may wind up being the young guys and also whether or not the Pirates can get enough off the bench. Currently, you've got the starting unit and just one player, freshman Haralds Karlis, that averages more than one point per game.
After Friday's road contest at Longwood, we'll find out whether this Seton Hall team is legit or not. The Pirates start Big East play with Syracuse, West Virginia and UConn.
"I know what's coming up," Willard said. "We're not getting happy just yet."
"We haven't accomplished anything yet," added Pope.
Maybe not, but people are actually talking about what Seton Hall is doing on the court. It's been a while since that was the case.Photo: US PRESSWIRE