NEW YORK — His team eliminated, his season over, Kevin Willard's move was to make a beeline for the locker room. Seton Hall had just been unceremoniously dumped from the Big East tournament in the first round, blown out by 22 by Marquette, it's fall from the high perch of college basketball now complete. Willard made his way off the court at Madison Square Garden and to the tunnel when the jeers began.
A Seton Hall fan, his blue and white tie wrestled loose from the collar of his dress shirt, was relentless.
You've gotta go coach!
Five years! You're out!
The final indignity to what was the end of a season where his team was ranked in the Associated Press top 25 as late as Jan. 19, only to see it lose 11 of its last 14 games to end its season prematurely.
"We became very fragile in the second half of the year, which sometimes happens," Willard said in his postgame remarks. "When shots bank in on you a bunch of times, their fight and grit is still there, they're just not mentally able to get over that hump. That's kind of what we fought the whole second half, was we just couldn't get over the hump when something went bad."
That narrative plagued Seton Hall, dooming it from a team that showed such promised halfway through January, to a team barely competitive in its final game of the season. In just 51 days, the Pirates went from a top-25 team to one that left the court, searching for reasons as to where everything went wrong.
Pressure and sudden expectations proved to be a toxic mix for a young roster that struggled with the success so early in the season. Seton Hall was picked to finish sixth in the conference's preseason poll, but when the team started 12-2, with wins against ranked St. John's and Villanova teams to begin Big East play, expectations soared.
It only made the crash that much harder.
"The way we were winning, it just kind of got to us a little bit," star freshman Isaiah Whitehead said outside the team's locker room after. "The ranking, everything—it probably just happened too fast. We won a couple games and then everybody just started going crazy. I think once we got those two wins, when we stepped on the court, we just expected everybody to lay down to us."
Whitehead's post game admission, echoed by many of his teammates, points to just how ineffective Seton Hall was able to handle its success. After beating St. John's and Villanova, the Pirates split their next two games, before the tailspin began in earnest. Three straight losses set a tone that a young team which had never experienced anything, was not ready for the primetime.
Then came the off-the-court distractions. Sophomore guard Jaren Sina, one of the team's most reliable contributors, quit the team following its 86-67 home loss to Georgetown. One of Willard's first high-profile recruits from within the New Jersey borders, Sina's defection was the sign of issues larger than losses. Making matters even more complicated, was a blog post from a local reporter claiming Sina quit the team because of race-related taunts directed at the point guard.
Seton Hall, as well as Sina's father, a local high school basketball coach, refuted those claims.
Whitehead, a top-25 recruit brought in as part of a nationally-ranked class this season, then clashed with the team's leading scorer, Sterling Gibbs during that Georgetown loss. The two players got into a shouting match during a timeout, with associate head coach Shaheen Holloway needing to separate the two.
Then there was Gibbs' forearm to the face of Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono on Feb. 16, which earned him a two-game suspension and more negative national headlines.
Now that Seton Hall's season is in all likelihood over (the team is considered a longshot for a NIT bid and will not accept an invitation to either the CIT or CBI tournaments) the question is: Do fences need to be mended inside the Pirates' locker room?
"There's nothing internally," freshman guard Khadeen Carrington said. "We've just got to put it together on the court. Everyone likes each other on the team."
"No, no," said forward Angel Delgado, named the Big East's Rookie of the Year earlier in the day. "We're brothers. We play together. We just lost games. We had a tough year. Next year? We'll know how to handle it better."
In the fracas of the apparent rifts, people around the Seton Hall program claim that much of it was being blown out of proportion. Internal strife between Gibbs and Whitehead was not what it appeared. In fact, at a team dinner the heated argument from four days earlier was long since forgotten. A 25-person table had been set up at a local Maggiano's, where Gibbs and Whitehead were the first two to choose their seats. Those at the dinner said that they chose to sit across from each other and conversed the entire night.
While those questions could be answered easily, there are others which Seton Hall will have to face before the beginning of next season.
Three seniors will depart, but the feeling is that the status of Gibbs' future is very much up in the air. Gibbs will be eligible to be a graduate senior next season, meaning that he can transfer to another school and be able to play immediately. However, the question is whether or not Seton Hall wants him to return. Privately, those around the program have grown weary of complaints from the Gibbs family about the role of their son within the Pirate program.
The coaching staff has continued to sing his praises, but wonder if the headache is worth the price of setting back the development of a young team.
There is fear though, given the Seton Hall ties that Gibbs has—he played for nearby Seton Hall Prep in high school—that any attempt to begin next season without him, would be met with blowback. Support for Willard is waning among the fanbase, though not with athletic director Pat Lyons, an ardent supporter of the head coach. Alumni feel that given the talent Willard has had in his five years in South Orange, he should have more to his name than one NIT appearance.
The collapse of this season has only added pressure.
"Sometimes when you get success real quick or early, it's hard," Willard said in a private moment in the hallway of the Garden. "You have to understand why you had success. At the same time, you have to grow a little bit during a season. It's good learning lessons. It really is."
Following the game, once the Seton Hall locker room had cleared out, an exhausted and worn-down-looking Willard retreated to his dressing room and sat. His grabbed at his face and dropped his sport jacket on the floor before closing the door. A few minutes later, Lyons entered, asking his head coach: "How are you doing?"
He then followed up with: "Are you alright?"
Lyons then closed the door.
Those are questions that right now, Seton Hall doesn't have an answer to. This was supposed to be a growing season, that was accelerated far ahead of schedule once the winning began. Entering the top 25 at No. 19 at the beginning of January raised the expectations that Seton Hall could have a real shot at its first NCAA tournament appearance since the 2005-06 season.
Instead, the team fell apart. The locker room experienced a defection. Egos were bruised. Lessons learned.
Following the postgame, Seton Hall's players exited Locker Room No. 2 quickly, leaving behind small piles of used sneakers, athletic tape and water bottles. Holloway and coordinator of basketball operations Kevin Lynch walked in, surprised to see the scene.
While their head coach and athletic director huddled for answers in the room near the front door and no one else around, the two Pirate assistants were left to clean up the mess.