Seton Hall's Impressive Start Inviting Comparisons To 1988-1989 Final Four Squad

Tom Luicci

They’re hoping to party like it’s 1989 in South Orange, N.J., in another month-plus, and the way this Seton Hall basketball team is constructed – and playing – evoking memories of the best team in school history from 31 years ago isn’t far-fetched.

With apologies to the school’s 1952-53 squad that went 31-2 and won the NIT back when the NIT mattered, the 1988-89 team still stands as the program’s gold standard.

Yes, I’m prejudiced in that regard. I was a beat writer for The Star-Ledger back then, chronicling that team from its surprising start in the Great Alaska Shootout, where the Pirates – picked for seventh in the nine-team Big East in the preseason that year – swept Utah, Kentucky and Kansas to kick off what would be a unexpectedly magical season.

That season would end with a one-point overtime loss to Michigan in the national championship game because referee John Clougherty couldn’t keep his whistle idle when it mattered most, when the players should have been the ones to decide a great title game.

Before falling short against the Wolverines, that band of Pirates manhandled Indiana, UNLV and Duke in the preceding rounds. Not only were they good, they were a likeable group, easy to root for, with players who proved that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

They were also as grounded as their head coach, P.J. Carlesimo.

Imagine something like this happening in the structured, corporate, fun-limiting Final Four now: The head coach of one of the teams in the championship game going into the media center for a cup of coffee and sitting down with his beat writers 45 minutes before the game as 1,000 or so national media types stood back and wondered what the heck was going on.

Carlesimo actually did that. We didn’t talk basketball. We just talked life. It was something he did during almost every home game during that season and he saw no reason to change for the last game of the year.

In 35 years as a sportswriter, covering national and local college football and college basketball, and doing 30 consecutive Final Fours from press row (plus the 1976 Final Four when I was writing for the student newspaper), that remains my favorite team. The people involved made it that way. And all of the success was unexpected, since Seton Hall had only made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history a year earlier and had graduated first-round draft pick Mark Bryant from that team.

The 1992-93 Seton Hall team, though, was the most talented in school history. But a stunning second-round NCAA Tournament loss to a pesky Western Kentucky as a No. 2 seed undermined one of the best regular seasons the school has ever had.

That Western Kentucky team was coached by Ralph Willard, the father of current Pirates head coach Kevin Willard.

Which brings us to the current Pirates, currently 16-4 and 8-0 in the Big East and ranked No. 10 nationally, with a resume right now that merits a top 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

The roster looks to be complete: Three seniors generally start, there’s an All-American candidate in Myles Powell, there is size and depth and the defense can carry this team when it has to do so.

The two remaining games with Villanova, 7-1 in the Big East, will tell a lot more. The first is Feb. 8 at Villanova. Then the Wildcats trek to New Jersey on March 4.

As good as this team has been and can be, it’s also one that has created enormous pressure on Willard to finally produce in the NCAA Tournament. He has taken the Pirates there four times, losing in the first round three of those times and in the second round the other time.

But those teams were not nearly as talented as this one is, and this wild hoops season has shown itself to be as wide open as any in recent memory.

So we’ll see if the 1988-89 team has to eventually make room when the most accomplished teams in program history are discussed. It’s well within reach for the current Seton Hall team.

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The Kentucky Derby prep season starts to pick up this weekend with a trio of races that should be telling for connections aiming for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

The Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, the Withers at Aqueduct and the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park all bear watching for Derby followers. Things will pick up from here all the way through the final preps on April 11, when the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass are contested.

The Robert Lewis offers some intrigue with the presence of Thousand Words and Tizamagician. The Withers represents another step, and test, for Shotski. The Holy Bull appears to be wide open but will likely produce a runner worth watching.

Sometimes these early preps tell a lot. Sometimes they mean nothing in the long haul. Right now, though, everyone starts to have a little Derby fever.

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