NEWARK, N.J. — After losing four seniors to graduation and 63 percent of its scoring and rebounding, much wasn’t expected of Seton Hall this season.
While starting guard Myles Powell was back along with sometimes starter Michael Nzei, few felt the young Pirates would have a shot for a fourth straight 20-win season and a fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Neither is assured with nine games left in the Big East Conference season. The surprise is the Pirates (13-8, 4-5) have a chance after losing five of eight in January.
It’s a long shot with home games remaining against No. 10 Marquette and No. 14 Villanova, but the Hall is in the hunt after snapping a four-game losing streak with a 65-63 win over Providence on Wednesday night at home.
“These kids have never been in this situation before,” coach Kevin Willard, whose team has wins over nationally ranked Kentucky and Maryland. “They have never had this pressure before. This team wasn’t supposed to be here, and we’re not back yet to where we were playing. I have just tried to remind them of who were are and we have a long journey ahead and you can’t get down because some things don’t go your way.”
In previous years when the Pirates had a tough January, they could rely on center Angel Delgado and guards Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington to carry them with some help from forward Ismael Sanogo.
This year, the Pirates go as Powell goes. The junior is second in the conference in scoring with a 21.7 point average — six more than last season. He has scored in double figures in all but one game and has had four games of 30 or better, including 31 against Providence.
Powell insists there isn’t any extra pressure to produce.
“Last year, we rode Angel and I watched Angel go through it,” he said. “Learning from the seniors and watching what they went through, now it’s on me. I am definitely ready for it. I’m built for it. My coaching staff believes in me and most of all my teammates believe in me.”
If there has been a problem for the Pirates, it’s been finding someone else to step up and share the load with Powell.
Nzei chipped in with 12 points against the Friars and junior point guard Quincy McKnight, who sat out last year after transferring from Sacred Heart, had nine points. He added a go-ahead three-point play with three minutes left.
The rest of the team is chipping in at times. Sophomore forward Sandro Manukelashvili has averaged 8.8 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds. However, he was limited to a point and five rebounds against Providence.
“Every game we play now, our season is on the line,” McKnight said. “Even if it is not, we believe it is. We want our season to end great. We don’t want to be an eighth seed or anything like that in the conference. We are looking at these nine games as we need to win.”
Willard said his team has never quit, even after an 80-52 loss to Villanova on Sunday.
The players took the bus ride home from the Philadelphia area to northern New Jersey and held a players meeting to watch the game film. They went back to work Monday with Willard spending 30 minutes on a boxing-out drill.
Willard smiled when asked about the importance of the meeting, noting it was probably the fourth time this season there was a players meeting.
He said the biggest difference against Providence was his team worked hard in the two days leading up to it and then played defense, holding the Friars to 38 percent shooting. Romaro Gill capped the effort with a big block in the waning seconds.
Up next is a road game at Butler, a contest in which Willard will wear a microphone.
“I think bringing my kids will help,” Willard said. “When they sit on the bench, they make me calm down just a little bit.”
If the Pirates play well, that will help, too.