Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day Tribute: Seton Hall

Jeremy Hazell carved out quite a career through four years in South Orange, becoming third-leading scorer in Seton Hall history. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

With Memorial Day weekend now upon us, I thought I'd do something to honor those who could use a little recognition. These people have not passed on, (thank God for that) but their contributions were significant in their own way. Today will mark the first of a three-part series in which I'll pay tribute to the recently graduated seniors and head coaches from each of the three local college basketball programs in the Big East, and up first is Seton Hall.

No. 21, Jeremy Hazell
The man pictured above instilled fear in the eyes of his opponents and created nightmares for coaches when devising matchups and plays to stop him. The sweet shooter was such a weapon that he became arguably the best player that both Bobby Gonzalez and Kevin Willard had ever coached before his time in South Orange was through. The third-leading scorer in Pirates history, Hazell managed a double-figure scoring night in each game during his sophomore year; and still found a way to average close to twenty points per game in his final season despite overcoming a broken wrist and a shooting incident on Christmas night. The Harlem native came to the Garden State after a year at the Patterson School in North Carolina, a prep program that has produced a Who's Who of Big East stars the likes of Dwight Hardy and Wes Johnson among others; and his first highlight in a Seton Hall jersey was his 65-footer at Carnesecca Arena that would have tied Seton Hall at 65 with St. John's after Anthony Mason Jr. hit a three of his own with 1.5 seconds left that gave the Johnnies the lead, but the basket was rescinded after officials determined Gonzalez had called his final timeout prior to Hazell getting the shot off.

Jeremy's Defining Moment: It's hard to pick just one; but for the sake of space within this column, we'll go with his 35-point outburst against Notre Dame at the Prudential Center back in his junior year. Hazell poured in his 35 on 12-of-16 shooting (including eight three-pointers) and added four steals as the Pirates upset the eventual NCAA Tournament-bound Fighting Irish by the final of 90-87.

No. 22, Jamel Jackson (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
Even though this transfer was dismissed from the team this past season after being brought in by Bobby Gonzalez the year before, he still walked across the stage at his graduation; and die-hard Pirates fans will still remember him when they recall the 2009-10 NIT team. Jackson never really got a fair shake, and his dismissal may or may not have had something to do with Pat Hobbs wanting to put his own stamp on the program; but that's another issue for another time.

Jamel's Defining Moment: Without question, it's his explosive effort against VMI from December 2009. Jackson shocked most of the basketball world by going off for 40 points on 14-of-17 shooting, with twelve of the field goals coming from beyond the arc. Jeremy Hazell added 33 of his own in the Pirates' 134-107 victory, one that saw Seton Hall improve to 8-0 at that point in the season. In this contest, Jackson became the first player to score at least 40 for the Pirates since all-time leading scorer Terry Dehere did it in 1993.

No. 2, Keon Lawrence (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
Another Gonzalez transfer that came to New Jersey from the University of Missouri, and another who was unceremoniously dismissed from the team midway through the year last season. Lawrence had made his fair share of mistakes, but it didn't diminish his talent whenever he got a chance to show it off.

Keon's Defining Moment: The Newark product had his finest hour on January 31st of this year against Cincinnati. Despite losing to the Bearcats by the final of 70-53, Lawrence set a career high for the Pirates with 15 points and six rebounds off the bench.

No. 14, Eniel Polynice (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)
The transfer that was able to play immediately after leaving the University of Mississippi was lauded by Kevin Willard at Big East media day last October for his versatility, described by the coach as a player who could play anything from point guard to power forward. Unfortunately, Polynice didn't produce as much as fans would have liked; but was still a high-energy player off the bench that gave Seton Hall productive minutes any and every time he stepped on the court.

EP's Defining Moment: The last game of the regular season at the Prudential Center against Marquette. Two days removed from a shocking upset on their home court against St. John's in a game that saw a rare ejection of Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin, Polynice chipped in with eleven points as the Pirates headed into the Big East tournament on a two-game winning streak; jeopardizing the Golden Eagles' NCAA Tournament hopes at the time.

No. 32, Jeff Robinson (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
The versatile small forward that joined the team halfway through the 2009-10 season after becoming eligible in the wake of his transfer from Memphis gave the Pirates something to smile about down the stretch of his junior campaign. His impressive performance against St. John's (16 points, nine rebounds) after Jeremy Hazell left the game with a hand injury was the biggest key to giving Bobby Gonzalez his long-awaited first win at Carnesecca Arena, as the Pirates overcame the Johnnies by the final of 59-50. Robinson continued his unsung hero style into his final season; and despite a performance in the Big East tournament against Rutgers that he'd probably like to forget, he remains an integral part of Pirates basketball over the last two years.

J-Rob's Defining Moment: Another Pirate with several on the list to mention, but it's his outing against archrival Rutgers at the RAC in March of 2010 that stands out in my opinion. Robinson picked that game to record his first double-double in a Seton Hall uniform, scoring 16 points and ripping down 14 rebounds as the Pirates defeated their Garden State adversaries in Piscataway by the final of 85-74.

Head Coach Kevin Willard (Photo courtesy of Newark Star-Ledger)
Hired to succeed Bobby Gonzalez after he was surprisingly (and unjustly to some) fired immediately following the Pirates' NIT loss to Texas Tech, Willard's maiden voyage in South Orange was one marked by turmoil and adversity. From losing Jeremy Hazell for almost two months due to the aforementioned broken wrist and attempted robbery in which he was shot to the departures of Lawrence and Jackson that forced him to play a seven-man rotation at times, Willard made the best of what he was dealt in a season where Seton Hall finished 13-18 after progressively improving their win total in each of the previous four seasons under Gonzalez.

Willard's Defining Moment: January 25th at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse had come in on a two-game losing streak after being undefeated well into the new year; and the Pirates executed better than any other point that season in their signature game of the year, a 90-68 demolition of the Orange just seventeen days after Syracuse had defeated Seton Hall in a close game at the Prudential Center in which Brandon Triche proved vital for the Orange from beyond the arc. Willard would get two more huge wins to close out the regular season against St. John's and Marquette, but neither were as significant or as resounding as this one.

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