SOUTH ORANGE, New Jersey — At one point last season, Seton Hall was among the very best basketball teams in the nation.
The Pirates were ranked as high as No. 19, their highest ranking since 2001, and had a 12-2 record. They had a sensational freshman class and started the Big East regular season schedule with thrilling victories against nationally ranked St. John's and Villanova.
The promise disappeared quickly. The Pirates finished 4-13 in the second half, losing 10 of 11 games and seven straight. There were rumors of turmoil in the locker room, pitting the talented freshmen and the veterans.
Starting guard Jaren Sina left the team after 12 games. He is at George Washington now.
Leading scorer and local player Sterling Gibbs took his 16 points average and left for Connecticut.
The result was a 16-15 record and a team in a flux.
Coach Kevin Willard, who takes an 82-81 record into his sixth season, admits that he did not handle the team's troubles well.
"I didn't handle the outside distractions well. There were a lot of outside distractions from family and friends, aunts and uncles. It wasn't just one factor," Willard said. "I have a much better handle on that now, but the dynamic of this team is much different."
Sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has dismissed any thoughts of troubled times.
"I just think we didn't know what it was like to be ranked and how to handle it," said Whitehead, who arrived at Seton Hall last year with much ballyhoo as the program's first McDonald's All-American since 2001. "We've put it behind us. There's nothing we can do about it."
Whitehead missed nine games with a broken foot, averaged 12 points and shot 36 percent from the floor and 34 percent from 3-point range.
It's his team now as Seton Hall prepares for its season opener against Dartmouth on Friday at the Prudential Center.
The Pirates have some talent coming back, including sophomore forward Angel Delgado, who was the Big East Rookie of the Year, averaging 9.3 points and 9.8 rebounds.
"I'm not paying any attention to what people said about us last year," Delgado said. "People say the team fought, but I never saw it. It's a new year. We're a lot better this year. I really like the way Coach Willard has been tough on us."
Sophomore guard Khadeen Carrington (8.8 points) showed flashes last year, but he shot 38 percent from the floor and 28 percent from beyond the arc. Sophomore forward Desi Rodriguez (5.6 points per game) will see more minutes and his responsibilities increase.
The team also welcomes graduate student Derrick Gordon. The first openly gay player in NCAA basketball, he has transferred to Seton Hall from Massachusetts, where he averaged 9.8 points last year. Gordon is a native of nearby Plainfield, New Jersey
Here are some other things to watch about Seton Hall this season:
CAN WHITEHEAD LEAD?: With Gibbs gone, Whitehead will be counted on to be the team's main scoring threat. The outside distractions that plagued Whitehead throughout his freshman campaign are said to be gone, but it's safe to say that there has to be a wait-and-see approach for now.
GORDON'S INFLUENCE: From the minute he walked onto campus, Gordon has been a positive for the Pirates. He been the team's unofficial leader and has provided a sense of calm on a roster packed with tumult.
DELGADO A BEAST: There were times last year when Delgado was unstoppable, collecting rebound after rebound, making Willard look good with his preseason promise that Delgado rebounded like Dennis Rodman. Delgado already has more of an offensive game than Rodman.
SHOOTING WOES: There's no question that if the Pirates are going to be an improved team this year, they have to shoot better. Returning players Whitehead, Carrington and Rodriguez didn't make 40 percent of their shots.
INSIDE PLAY: Other than Delgado, there is very little experience inside. Freshman Myles Carter out of Chicago and redshirt freshman Michael Nzei will have to contribute.