SOUTH ORANGE, New Jersey — Heading into his fifth season, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard knows the pressure is on to win.
"I've come to realize that every year is a big year," said Willard, who has posted a 66-66 record, including a 17-17 mark last season. "I understand the last couple years have been rough, but we should be much better this year. I have good belief in this year."
The Pirates tip off the 2014-15 season Sunday against Mercer at the Prudential Center. Mercer not only defeated the Pirates in the regular season last year, it also eliminated Duke from the NCAA tournament.
Part of the reason for Willard's optimism is a solid recruiting class, including freshman shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead, who was voted the preseason Big East Rookie of the Year by the league's coaches.
"Isaiah is a scorer, but he's also a very unselfish player," Willard said. "But he definitely has to score some points for us."
Whitehead doesn't mind the preseason hype.
"I've been through a lot of things in my life growing up and I'm more mature and different than kids my age. But (being the preseason Rookie of the Year) does raise my expectations a little," said the program's first McDonald's All-American recruit in 14 years. "I just have to keep the same positive mindset and do what I can. Coach wants me to be a scorer, but I can do other things. Whatever Coach needs and whatever helps the team, I'm good with it."
Whitehead averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists last season for Abraham Lincoln High School in New York City.
Whitehead isn't the only talented player in the Pirates' backcourt. Sterling Gibbs returns for his second year with the Pirates as the team's top returning scorer. The junior averaged 13.2 points last season. Sophomore Jaren Sina, who averaged 6.0 points, will play more of a reserve role this year after making 19 starts last season.
"We haven't had this kind of guard play in a while. I think that has helped this team jell quicker than I thought it would," Willard said. "Sterling and Isaiah will have to carry their loads. Sterling is capable of scoring in a lot of different ways. We need Sterling and Isaiah to score the ball."
The Pirates have questions to answer up front.
Senior Brandon Mobley is the team's top returning forward. He played in all 34 games last year, averaging 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds.
Angel Delgado, a 6-foot-9 freshman from the Dominican Republic, is expected to make an immediate impact. He averaged 15.7 points and 16.3 rebounds as a high school senior.
"He had 17 rebounds in one of our scrimmage games. He is one of those high energy guys," Willard said. "He's a lot like Dennis Rodman. He just needs to handle his emotions better."
Desi Rodriguez, Whitehead's high school teammate at Lincoln, is a 6-foot-6 small forward who also will play.
The Pirates were selected to finish among the middle of the pack in the tightly contested Big East this season.
"I think the league has positioned itself to be very successful," Willard said. "We've all recruited at a high level and every game is televised nationally, which is insane. We don't have 16 teams anymore, but the league is in great shape."
Willard has to hope that his team is in as good of shape when the postseason starts.
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