When I initially saw Fairleigh Dickinson on the schedule for Seton Hall's season opener at Walsh Gymnasium, my instinct was to say "Huh, that's interesting." The reigning champions of the NEC, FDU kind of came out of nowhere to win the league and make the NCAAs last year, and it certainly was a break from a norm in terms of season-opening games under Kevin Willard. This was going to be a test, and for a while, it was. Then a huge second half and leaders leading like they do ended up in a 91-70 win in front of 1,856 fans in South Orange.
Here are the Five Thoughts from a nice season-opening win:
1. First Test
Fairleigh Dickinson was playing without arguably their best player in swingman Earl Potts, Jr., but they still had Darian Anderson, who went OFF in this game and showed himself to be a certain all-NEC performer at year's end. He finished with 27 points on 11-18 shooting and at times gave the Pirates fits.
The point is that the Knights certainly have talent, and Seton Hall couldn't quite pull away until the second half, when Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez joined Angel Delgado and overwhelmed the visitors. Consider the first test passed- it was a nice effort for the Hall to kick off their title defense.
The Pirates raised their 2016 NCAA Tournament and Big East Championship banners on Friday night, and with fans packing Walsh Gym to the gills, it felt like how the older alumni describe Walsh in its heyday. The crowd was into it from the get-go, reacting almost as one to the action on the floor (and reaming the refs in unison when they felt they weren't being fair). It was basically why Kevin Willard has said in the past that he likes to play one game per year there.
Afterwards, FDU head coach Greg Herenda said he was "honored" to play in the game. A former Seton Hall assistant coach under George Blaney, he had not been back to play a game at Walsh since he departed as a coach, and he was effusive in his reminiscing of his days as a Pirate. The Jersey-born Herenda, who recruited current associate head coach Shaheen Holloway, mentioned his relationship with Grant Billmeier, who was brought back by Willard after he was an assistant under Herenda at FDU, and how he was impressed with the renovation of the facilities around the gym itself. It was a real nice touch in the press conference for some of the media who were alums of the Hall themselves (including yours truly).
Also, Isaiah Whitehead was in attendance to support his friends and former teammates, getting a nice ovation when announced over the PA.
FDU held on and hung around for the first half (they only trailed by five at the break) and the early second half, but then the Pirates' offense took over, led by Khadeen Carrington. The junior guard shot the lights out from beyond the arc (5-6) en route to 27 total points, leading all scorers. 19 of these points came in a huge second half in which the Pirates as a team hit on 79 percent of their shots. Carrington's triples allowed the Hall to finally pull away, at one point scoring nine straight points for the Pirates. As the de-facto top scorer with Isaiah Whitehead's departure to the NBA, that was an encouraging sign.
4. Delgado Domination
One thing that Big East big men have that NEC big men don't is size. At 6'10" with a high motor and a great skill set, the Knights had no answer whatsoever for Angel Delgado, who poured in the first of what should be many double-doubles with 22 points and 14 rebounds. He did have five turnovers and looked a touch out-of-control at times, but perhaps that was because he knew that FDU couldn't stop him.
Either way, Delgado looked like an all-Big East player on Friday night, and the Pirates were really looking for him often down low where he showed off good touch around the rim. Watch out, opponents.
5. Supporting Cast
Desi Rodriguez (12 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists on eight shots) played one of his better games as a Pirate- effective, efficient and under control. Although Myles Powell missed his first four threes (a rarity), he nailed back-to-back baskets in the second half that started the Pirates' late surge to put the game out of reach. Mike Nzei was Mike Nzei, bringing energy and hustle.
But the unsung star of the show was Madison Jones. Playing his first game as a Pirate, Jones finished with 10 assists and just one turnover. Willard had been playing Powell in the starting lineup, but flipped to Jones for the opener and as it turns out, it was clearly the right move. He distributed the ball well, getting his teammates involved first and foremost. Had they hit all of the shots taken after his passes, he could have easily finished with 15 assists by himself. He did it without much flash, either - a real workmanlike night at the point. On a team full of guys who can score, Jones could be quite valuable this season if he can play like he did on Friday night.
Next up, Seton Hall hosts Central Connecticut State in their Prudential Center opener on Sunday afternoon.