Will 5-Star Freshman Isaiah Whitehead Put Seton Hall Basketball Back on the Map?

NEW YORK — There was a time, not too long ago, when Seton Hall was a contender.

With P.J. Carlesimo at the helm in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Pirates made six consecutive NCAA tournaments from 1987 to 1994. In the season of 1988-89, Seton Hall made it all way to the National Championship but fell by a point to a Michigan team led by future NBA star Glen Rice.

When Carlesimo left to pursue a coaching career in the NBA, things went south in South Orange.

The Pirates have taken part in the Madness just three times since Carlesimo’s departure about 20 years ago. They’ve also earned seven sporadic appearances in the NIT.

Current coach Kevin Willard took over the program back in 2010, and has led the team to a .500 record of 66-66.

Last season, Seton Hall finished 17-17. More importantly, the team was 6-12 in the Big East. Somehow, though, the eighth-seeded Pirates won two thrillers in the conference tournament before getting bounced by the eventual champion, Providence, in the semis.

Despite being located in the heart of one of basketball’s best breeding grounds—the New York/New Jersey area—the Pirates have failed to create any sort of substantial buzz in recent memory.

But change is coming.

And his name is Isaiah Whitehead.

The incoming freshman was one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation before he decided to come to the Hall last summer.

ESPN ranked the 6’4”, 195-pound Whitehead as the No. 2 shooting guard in the nation, and the 14th overall prospect out of the Top 100.

Whitehead, a native of Brooklyn, is not alone in his quest to put Seton Hall back into contention. Angel Delgado (No. 48 in the Top 100), Desi Rodriguez (Whitehead’s high school co-star), Khadeen Carrington and Ismael Sanogo will also don the Blue and White in 2014-15.

This is Seton Hall’s best freshmen class since landing the No. 1 recruit, Eddie Griffin, back in 2000.

But in the end, it’ll be Whitehead who ultimately controls how things turn out in New Jersey.


The New Face of Seton Hall

When asked where Seton Hall’s recruiting class ranks—in both the conference and the nation—at Big East Media Day, the soft-spoken Whitehead didn’t even blink.

“I think we have the best one,” he told B/R.

By the end of the year, the freshman’s claim may ring true. But for now, scouting service Rivals.com has the Pirates’ class ranked at 13, with Duke and Kentucky filling the top spots.

“We’re all complete players in our group,” the McDonald’s All-American said. “We all had the attitude that everyone came in and worked so hard over the summer, and now we’re in shape and ready for the season.”

Whitehead was named as New York’s Mr. Basketball, an award for the state’s top senior player, last season. During his four years at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn—yes, the same one that Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson attended—Whitehead shined.

“It’s great,” Whitehead said of playing so close to home. “That’s one of the reasons I picked Seton Hall, so all my family and friends could watch me play.”

In his senior year, Whitehead put up 23.5 points, 6.7 boards and 5.4 assists on a nightly basis. When it came time for Lincoln to start chasing a state title, his points stayed constant at 23, but his rebounds and assists climbed to 9.8 and 6.2, respectively.

The kid is big-time.

Whitehead can get to the rim at will. The Brooklyn native has the ability to dish with either hand if the defense collapses on him, or, if he’s left in isolation, can use his Kyrie Irving-like touch around the rim. Whitehead also has great range and can knock down shots from all over the floor.

While he’ll probably start in a three-guard set alongside returning players Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina, the freshman star is likely to become Seton Hall’s offensive focal point, especially now that Fuquan Edwin has graduated.

The Pirates do have some talent coming back, including 6’9″ forward Brandon Mobley, who noted that the star-studded newcomers have been humble and hard-working so far.

Whitehead is going to be a star for Seton Hall this year. But what if he’s too good—as in, you know, one-and-done? Would an early exit diminish the impact he could have on the program?



How Whitehead Affects SHU‘s Future

Here’s a plot twist: Willard wants Whitehead to leave for the NBA.

Generally, coaches who want what’s best for their players—and have a proven track record of it—are better recruiters.

“The window is this year and I’m focused on this year, I’m not worried about next year,” the coach told Adam Zagoria of SNY.

“If he does as well as I think he can and if he’s going to be drafted next year, then we’re going to have a very good year. It’s going to go hand-in-hand. You look at all the guys who get drafted, very rarely do they get drafted and their teams don’t have a good year. If he’s going to have that year, which I think he has the ability to, then we’re going to have a good year.”

Willard knows that 2014-15 could be a make-or-break campaign for him. That’s why he gave Whitehead’s high school coach, Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, a spot on the Pirates’ bench as an assistant before landing the standout guard.

Let’s say that Seton Hall doesn’t win the Big East, finishes with a mediocre record and watches Whitehead bolt. All are far-from-unlikely scenarios.

Sounds like a nightmare, right? Not exactly.

If the Pirates are able to make some serious noise this year, they’ll have succeeded—regardless of what Whitehead decides to do after the season.

And making the NCAA tournament is an immensely important part of that.

“This is the year, man,” senior forward Haralds Karlis said of making the tourney. “It has to be. It’s very important for us, for the program, for the fans, for everyone right now.”

For far too long, the school has failed to capitalize on its location. Whitehead said it himself: He chose Seton Hall in part because it’s close to his home.

But why haven’t others done the same?

Look at Kentucky—the team has different players every year, but is always in national contention. High-profile HS prospects want to win and, more importantly, they want to move on the pros.

Therein lies the problem. Seton Hall’s last player to be drafted was Samuel Dalembert 13 years ago, one of two SHU players to have been drafted in the past two decades.

If other New York/New Jersey prospects—and there are tons of them—watch Whitehead rise to stardom, Seton Hall suddenly becomes a desired destination.

That’s why Whitehead could realistically turn the Pirates’ tide for years to come, even if he leaves after this season.

Or rather, especially if he leaves after this season.

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Following ‘Zo: Which Other Miami Heat Players Will Be in NBA Hall of Fame?

In 2006, Alonzo Mourning lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy just two-and-a-half years after he received a kidney transplant from a cousin he hadn’t seen for a quarter-century.

It’s a remarkable story. If there were a film made about Zo’s life, this would almost certainly be the climax. The teary-eyed moment of triumph over adversity.

As sports writers have meditated on Mourning in the days surrounding his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it’s a moment that they’ve rightly devoted special attention to. It’s how we’ll remember him.

It’s not what I’ll remember, though. What I’ll remember is what happened before the transplant.

Mourning was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis before the 2000-01 season. According to The Associated Press’ report at that time (via ESPN.com), the degenerative kidney condition was associated with end-stage renal failure that came within five to 20 years of the disease’s onset.

In the face of this grim prognosis, which came on the heels of arguably his best year as a pro, Zo missed all but 13 games the following season. But he then came back and played 75 games in 2001-02. He averaged 15.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks that year, with a kidney that was in the process of ceasing to work.

According to an interview Mourning gave with his former Georgetown coach John Thompson, he didn’t temporarily retire until doctors told him his potassium levels were so elevated he was at risk of a heart attack. At which point he got a kidney transplant, took a break and then proceeded to play in parts of five more seasons.

He was never the same, but he was still a fierce, effective player. During the Miami Heat‘s 2005-06 title run, he led the NBA in postseason true shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage.

“When you talk about Alonzo…what it comes down to is he’s the absolute, ultimate warrior,” Heat president Pat Riley said of his former player, according to ESPN.com’s Michael Wallace. “Nobody I’ve been around has more blood and sweat equity in this game than this man, Alonzo. He gave everything he had to the game, but, as a competitor, never gave an inch.”


Bringing the Heat to Springfield

Mourning was a singular figure in Heat history, but he’ll soon have plenty of company in Springfield, Massachusetts. With the number of Miami greats set to gain eligibility in the coming years, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame might have to devote a wing to South Beach.

At present, Zo and Gary Payton are the only Miami players who have been inducted. (Pat Riley was inducted as an executive.) But that’s going to change soon, as the members of Miami’s mini-dynasty from 2010-2014 trickle out of the league and into history.

There are a handful of current and former Heat players who are stone locks to make the Hall at some point. Shaquille O’Neal, who won a title with Mourning in 2005-06, becomes eligible in 2017 and will absolutely be a first-ballot selection. Likewise, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be obvious picks for the voters.

These are no-brainers. LeBron, Wade and Shaq have had such rich, consistently excellent careers, the Hall of Fame will feel almost like insufficient acknowledgement of their greatness when the honor comes. To crib a Bill Simmons’ argument, these guys deserve their own lofty perch on the “pyramid.”

Ray Allen, though not on the level of the above-mentioned Heat players, is also a surefire Hall of Famer. Allen has made more three-point shots than anyone in league history, ranks 24th all time in win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com, has won two championships and has appeared in 10 All-Star Games and one great Spike Lee movie. He’ll get in, and he’ll be deserving.

This is where the exercise gets interesting. Chris Bosh seems a long way away from immortality, but he may be able to build a credible case with a strong statistical finish to his career. The Boshtrich has strong individual accolades—nine All-Star appearances, two NBA titles, two more Finals appearances, a fun nickname—and, if coupled with better numbers, has a fine chance of making it.

Though Bosh hasn’t necessarily been otherworldly by measure of the boxscore these last few seasons, he’s already racked up 96 win shares on .161 win shares per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com. For point of reference, that is more win shares than Alonzo Mourning posted in his career and a higher WS/48 mark than Gary Payton managed over the course of his.

There are extenuating circumstances here, sure. Payton played for so long that his dismal late-30s production pulled down his career averages, while Mourning missed a lot of chances to accumulate win shares while coping with kidney disease. And both of these players were better defensively than Bosh.

But bear this in mind: Bosh has averaged 8.55 win shares a season in his four years in South Beach. If he can maintain the same average in the next five seasons of his new deal—which, given his age and the increased responsibilities he’ll assume, seems reasonably—he’ll be at 138.75 for his career.

This would be good for 27th place all time, just ahead of Jason Kidd. Coupled with the rings and the All-Star games, that’s a distinctly HOF-y resume. I doubt I’ll ever tell my grandchildren about Bosh, but I think he makes it.

Onto the bench. Erik Spoelstra has shown himself to be a bright, inventive coach, but it’s difficult to project how his career will end up. Two titles and four Finals appearances is impressive, but he’s not there yet.

And given that coaching success is so contingent on factors outside of the coach-in-question’s control—for instance, the players who end up on the roster—it’s impossible to say whether he’ll get another opportunity to coach a juggernaut and further pad his ring totals and burnish his reputation. This is in no way an indictment of Spoelstra, but I don’t think the Hall is in his future.

That brings us to the final potential Heat HOFer from this era: Shawn Marion.

Marion’s inclusion in the argument will surely be controversial here because 1.) He only played 58 games as a member of the Heat and 2.) Most people don’t think Marion is anywhere near a Hall of Fame-level player. To which I say: I don’t care and you’re wrong.

Marion has been a capital “G” great player throughout his very long career. For instance, according to Basketball-Reference.com, Marion is 36th all time in win shares. One slot below Scottie Pippen and two ahead of Elvin Hayes. He’s an excellent rebounder, an efficient scorer (despite a shot that looks like it was designed to make high school coaches dyspeptic) and a lockdown defender.

But, despite his gaudy numbers, there’s a resistance to Marion’s candidacy. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton (subscription required), Marion has 142.9 wins above replacement player for his career. No one who’s finished above 150 has ever failed to make the Hall.

And yet Pelton himself is bearish on the veteran’s chances. After acknowledging that Basketball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame probability calculator gave Marion just a 26.5 percent shot of making it to Springfield, he wrote:

Marion’s four All-Star appearances are on the low side for a Hall of Famer. That he was seen as the third option on Phoenix Suns teams that weren’t good enough to reach the NBA Finals doesn’t help his case, either. He’s probably going to have to keep playing long enough to reach 20,000 career points to have a real shot at the Hall.

That’s fair enough. My instinct is that blunt measures of player value like total points scored will, over time, have less and less sway over public thought as the analytics movement deepens its influence and sharpens its insights, but I doubt this transformation will happen quickly enough to save Marion from the “Hall of Very Good.”

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Alonzo Mourning first thanked all of the usual people when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: His coaches, his teachers, and the foster mother who raised him. With one of the doctors who performed his kidney transplant in attendance, the former Georgetown and Miami Heat star discussed the disease that threatened his life and almost ended his career. ”I just thought, ‘This is much bigger than me.’ I had a goal set to win a championship that was denied when I got kidney disease.” Mourning returned to win the 2006 NBA title with the Heat and complete a career that led him to the Springfield shrine. He was inducted in a class that also included former NBA commissioner David Stern, NCAA championship-winning coaches Nolan Richardson and Gary Williams and six-time NBA All-Star Mitch Richmond.

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Fordham Assistant John Morton Part of a Renowned Team Seton Hall Will Honor

John Morton remembers it like it was yesterday.

So does anyone else fortunate enough to have witnessed one of the greatest runs in college basketball history.

The 1988-89 Seton Hall Pirates will forever be remembered for their Final Four appearance and near-upset win over Michigan in the NCAA championship.

But for that team, and for everyone across the country who watched the Pirates make history, it was much more than just a couple of days in Seattle. It was a season like no other.

Seton Hall was founded in 1856, but it would be 132 years before Morton and the Pirates put the university on the map.

To get a full sense of what they accomplished, it’s worth noting that the 1980s was a great decade for college basketball.

Michael Jordan, who would go on to lead the Chicago Bulls to six titles, won the national championship with North Carolina in 1982. Dereck Whittenburg’s shot (you can call it a pass if you’d like) ended up in the hands of Lorenzo Charles, who dunked it home to give North Carolina State an upset win over Houston in 1983. The Villanova Wildcats, led by Rollie Massimino, did the unthinkable and shocked the Georgetown Hoyas in 1985. Keith Smart hit a baseline jumper that won it for Indiana in 1987.

Then came the 1988-89 season at Seton Hall, when a group of young men and an up-and-coming coach cast a national light on South Orange, New Jersey.

On Wednesday night, that Seton Hall team will be inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame. Two- and-a-half decades after that memorable season, the greatest team in school history will be recognized for making Seton Hall basketball, and thus the university itself, part of history.

The event will take place at the annual Seton Hall Athletics Hall of Fame Dinner inside Walsh Gymnasium. All players, coaches and managers will be honored.

“I definitely think it’s good on Seton Hall’s part to induct this whole team that’s meant so much to the school, to the history, to New Jersey and to basketball as a whole,” Morton, who led the team in scoring that year and who is now an assistant coach at Fordham, said on Tuesday. “It’s definitely a great thing.

“Twenty-five years have gone by; it’s like it just happened yesterday. The time flew fast, but the history and everything is still there.”

It’s called March Madness for a reason. But for that Pirate team, it was more than just those three weeks in March: It was about the whole season.

Morton, along with teammates like Andrew Gaze, Gerald Greene, Ramon Ramos and Daryll Walker, and led by head coach P.J. Carlesimo, won 31 games that year.

It was a close-knit group that made history. While Morton, who was a senior, averaged 17.3 points per game, it was a team effort from start to finish that ultimately led to the Pirates having their best season ever.

“I never played on another team like that in my whole career,” Morton, who was inducted into the Seton Hall Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997, said. “I played on some great teams, but this team was exceptional. There was total unity—always team-first, no me-first players worrying about their stats.

“We enjoyed playing basketball and enjoyed hanging out and being around each other. The unity that we had as friends, teammates and then going into battle was tremendous.”

Seton Hall had some National Invitation Tournament experiences, but its first NCAA tournament appearance didn’t come until the 1987-88 season.

Morton had a goal from the first day he stepped on campus.

“As freshmen, we came in to help rebuild the program,” Morton said. “We accomplished that and a whole lot more.

“Just becoming America’s team during that run was a great thing to experience. It brought a lot of awareness to Seton Hall University, to us, to New Jersey basketball and to New York metropolitan basketball.

“I’m glad to have been a part of that history and knowing that we had a lot to do with building that program to the point where guys followed in our footsteps and continued the tradition.

“It was a great accomplishment.”

Seton Hall won its first 13 games in 1988-89, but it was the run in the NCAA tournament that people remember.

The Pirates beat Southwest Missouri State, Evansville, Indiana and UNLV to advance to the Final Four in Seattle.

Then they beat Duke 95-78 in the semifinal game, advancing to the championship two days later, where they would take on Michigan.

In that game, which will go down as one of the greatest ever played, the Pirates found themselves down by 12 points in the second half. But Morton, who scored 25 points in the second half and finished with a game-high 35, knocked down a three-pointer to tie the game at 71-71 with 25 seconds left.

Morton was so good that night. He scored 17 of Seton Hall’s final 20 points in regulation. But in overtime, Rumeal Robinson knocked down two free throws with three seconds left to give the Wolverines an 80-79 lead and ultimately the championship. 

It’s a performance, scene and season that Morton will always remember.

“You can’t forget it because the game is always around every Final Four, which is a great thing,” he said. “I had reached that zone probably three times my senior year where I came out and shot well in the second half and played that way. It was a great feeling knowing that you were putting up shots and your teammates were getting you the ball, that things were rolling and we were catching up and getting into the game.”

Carlesimo, who graduated from Fordham in 1971 and became an assistant coach there that same year, would guide the Pirates for 12 seasons, winning 212 games. Morton, now a coach, appreciates what Carlesimo did for him and for the team.

“Now that I’m in coaching you look back and see the hard work he and his staff put in, the sleepless nights in the office,” Morton said. “I can see the hard work it took to get to that point, to get us to understand what we needed to do as a team. He and his staff did a great job preparing us and picking the right guys with the right character to mesh together.

“Everybody sees him as this guy screaming on the sidelines,” Morton added, “but he was definitely a great role model to us because he kept us in line, showed us the right way to do things and mentored us on being professionals on the college level—from the way we dressed, to the way we carried ourselves off the court, to the way we prepared and stayed mentally prepared for games. He did a great job in that sense.”

Morton spent three seasons in the NBA playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. He then moved on to the CBA before playing in Spain, Italy and the Philippines.

When Morton’s daughter, Schyler, was six, she suggested to her dad that he become a coach. That’s exactly what he did. He started in 2005-06 as an administrative assistant at Seton Hall, then spent five seasons as an assistant at Saint Peter’s College before joining the Fordham staff in 2010.

“The thing we’re dealing with now in this era of basketball, as San Antonio just proved to a lot of people, is that it has to be team-first,” Morton said, referring to the Spurs, who just won the NBA championship. “That’s the one thing we’re trying to stress to these guys—doing team-oriented stuff to get these guys used to being around each other and trusting each other.

“The team’s got to be first. If you are a solo act, that won’t get it done on this level. Everything has to be team-first. You have to have guys with good character that want to play basketball the right way.”

Morton talks about giving back and about how coaches have to be in it for the right reasons. He says it’s about teaching, about helping his players become men.

It’s something he learned at Seton Hall. Tonight, he’ll be able to share those experiences with his former teammates and coaches.

“No matter how far you move or how long you don’t see one guy, we’re still a family,” Morton said. “It’s a joy to get a chance to spend a moment here and there with those guys, because they’re family that you always have the memories with.”

Memories that will last forever.


Quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.

Charles Costello covers the Fordham Rams for Bleacher Report. Twitter: @CFCostello.

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