Team preview: Seton Hall

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 5:23 PM ET
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COACH AND PROGRAM

Expectations are high in South Orange after three years of steady growth under coach Louis Orr. Seton Hall peaked last year with a 21-10 record (10-6 Big East) and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Orr has quickly established himself as one of the top coaches in the Big East and appears to boast enough returning talent to keep Seton Hall near the top of the conference again this season. Orr knows expectations will be higher for the 2004-05 campaign, but doesn't expect his team to be overcome by pressure.

"I don't think of it as pressure, I just look at it as goal setting," Orr said. "We're going to set our standards pretty high and shoot to be the best. There's nothing wrong with being content with what we did last season, but we certainly want to continue that growth this year."

Orr earned Big East Coach-of-the-Year honors in 2003 after Seton Hall embarked on a nine-game winning streak (including eight consecutive Big East victories) as the team finished with a 17-13 (10-6 Big East) record (just its second winning season since 1992-93).

Orr -- who played in the NBA with the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers -- spent 10 years as an assistant at Syracuse (his alma mater), Providence and Xavier before taking his first head-coaching job at Siena in 2000.

Siena posted a 20-11 record in Orr's first and only season there and finished in a three-way tie for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title. Orr's influence on his teams cannot be overlooked.

"I'm a big believer in team work and team chemistry," Orr said. "I believe defense dictates games. That's the way I played and that's the way I coach. But my focus is always on winning as a team. This group is a family and I try to get them to do as much together on the court as they do off. That chemistry goes a long way to making you a better team on the court."

Seton Hall put itself back on the map last season as it came from behind to upset Arizona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Pirates' reward was a 90-62 second-round shellacking at the hands of top-seeded Duke.

PLAYERS

The Pirates must deal with the loss of two four-year starters (Andre Barrett and Marcus Toney-El) but return four players who averaged double figures in scoring last season. Sprinkle in some of Orr's trademark defense and the Pirates appear to be a tough team to beat.

Seton Hall will look to funnel its offense to the frontcourt where it returns 6-8 junior center Kelly Whitney (13.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and 6-6, senior power forward Andre Sweet.

Coaches rave about Whitney's mix of power and quickness and believe he is ready for a breakout season. After two consistent years manning the low post for the Pirates, Whitney should be the focal point of this year's attack. The Chicago, Ill.-native utilizes his excellent footwork and a nice touch around the glass to score points in bulk. Last season, he started the final 23 games at center.

Whitney shined in the Pirates' upset of Arizona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. He chipped in 24 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in the victory. That's the sort of production the Pirates are hoping to receive on a more consistent basis this season.

"Kelly gives us an inside presence and an inside scorer," Orr said. "He's a warrior under the hoop and we expect he'll continue to grow this season."

Whitney finished second in the Big East in field-goal percentage last year (136-of-242, 56.2 percent). If teams try to double-team him down low it could open up the floor for Sweet.

Sweet (10.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg) is undersized for a power forward, but utilizes his lanky frame to create mismatches. He'll turn on his jets when guarded by a bigger defender and can use his strength to outmuscle undersized swingmen. What's more, Sweet has developed a complimentary outside game and can pull his defender away from the hoop to open up the floor for Whitney. It's no wonder this New York-native earned Seton Hall's "Jack-of-All-Trades" Award last season.

In his first year as a regular starter, showed he could also pass the ball when he registered a career-high five assists against Duke in the NCAA Tournament. Orr admits he just can't keep Sweet off the floor.

"Andre gives us versatility," Orr said. "He can score, he can rebound, he can pass. He just knows how to play the game."

The key for Seton Hall is find away to replace the production of Barrett, who averaged team-highs with 17.3 points and 5.9 assists per game while directing the Pirates' offense. Toney-El didn't put up those same gaudy numbers, but was an integral part of the starting five, averaging 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. Both were also excellent defenders.

"Andre and Marcus provided us with leadership and experience and that's something we'll really miss this season," Orr said. "Andre had so much talent. He made things happen when he was on the court and there's just no way we can replace him. Marcus was our best defender and one of the most versatile guys. We utilized him in a lot of ways."

Seton Hall has a nice foundation upon which to rebuild its backcourt in 6-5 senior swingman John Allen (12.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg). The only remaining four-year starter on the roster, Allen started all 31 games last season. Orr raves about Allen's mid-range game, which makes him dangerous as either a shooting guard or small forward. Allen is excellent in the lane and fouling him is risky -- he's the team best free-throw shooter.

What makes Allen even better is his skill at the defensive end. He is one of the best defenders in the league and registered 36 steals last season. One of just two seniors on the Pirates' roster, Allen (and Sweet) will be called upon to provided veteran leadership.

"John Allen has been a captain for us the past two years," Orr said. "Last year he led with his toughness. I think he'll take it to another level vocally this season as one of our only seniors, but he leads by example on the court."

Junior J.R. Morris (10.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg) gives Orr another swingman. The 6-6, Morris averaged more than 21 minutes per game last season as the Pirates' sixth man, but should get called upon to start this season alongside Allen. Coaches suggest Morris could be a breakout player for the Pirates this year as he's shown flashes of brilliance at the offensive end.

Morris is quick off the dribble and uses his height to get to the rim, but also boasts an effective pull-up jumper that he'll use on the baseline or in the lane.

"This is J.R.'s time," Orr said. "He's a natural scorer, but what we like is how he's improved at the other end of the floor. I think he's just touched the tip of the iceberg on his potential."

No one expects Donald Copeland to replace Barrett's production in the backcourt, but the Pirates are hoping the 5-10 junior guard can distribute the ball to the scorers, while providing some of his stellar defense at the opposite end.

Copeland has been the backup point guard the last two seasons. He averaged just 1.3 points per game last year, but has developed a nice touch from the outside that could blossom with more playing time this year. The only question surrounding Copeland is the lingering effects from surgery on a stress fracture in his right foot.

"Donald Copeland is our most experienced point guard on the floor now and we need him to step in and provided some of the leadership on the floor that Andre Barrett did," Orr said. "This is a great opportunity for Donald to flourish."

Sophomore Jamar Nutter, 6-2 and 205 pounds, adds more depth to the backcourt as he returns after being ineligible for the 2003-04 campaign. Orr says Nutter can do a little bit of everything including creating off the dribble. Nutter will undoubtedly get every opportunity to earn playing time at the point.

Sophomores Mani Messy and Grant Billmeier will compete for time in the frontcourt. Billmeier (1.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg), a 6-10, 245-pound center, saw action in 31 games last year and started eight times. Seton Hall will look to further utilize him this season. Billmeier averaged a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) as a senior for New Jersey's top-ranked St. Patrick's High School.

At 6-7, 216-pounds, Messy is an intriguing prospect at small forward. He didn't play much last season and missed his senior year of high school because of injury, so the coaching staff is interested in seeing how he progresses with more court time.

Junior Alex Gambino gives Seton Hall yet another big body to work with. At 7-0, 245-pounds, Gambino could contribute as a shot-blocker and rebounder. He averaged just 0.7 points and 0.9 rebounds per game in limited time last season and will have to impress during the preseason to convince coaches to play him more.

While coaches downplay the arrival of freshman Justin Cerasoli, the buzz in South Orange is that this 6-5 guard could be the long-term replacement for Barrett. Cerasoli, a Chicago native who attended West Aurora High School, comes with a reputation as a superb ball-handler and passer. He averaged 11 points, four rebounds and three assists per game as a senior (15 points, five assists as a junior) while guiding West Aurora to a 55-5 record in his final two seasons.

Freshman Marcus Cousin of Randallstown (Md.) High School adds more depth up front. The 6-10, 240-pound forward/center is described as a late-bloomer who should make an impact in the year's to come. The Pirates also welcomed 6-7 junior forward Stan Gaines to the program this year, but the University of Minnesota transfer will have to sit out the 2004-05 season. He averaged 26.4 minutes, 5.5 points and 3.2 rebounds last season for the Golden Gophers.

"We've got a few newcomers that will all get a chance to contribute and who we think are capable of contributing immediately," Orr said.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B
BENCH/DEPTH: B
FRONTCOURT: A-
INTANGIBLES: B+

The Pirates' upset of Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament has South Orange buzzing (and not even a fierce, second-round whipping by top-seeded Duke could kill that buzz). Orr has this team pointed in the right direction, but even with three talented returning starters it won't be easy to replicate last year's success. A challenging non-conference schedule certainly doesn't help matters either.

"The past two seasons we've been 10-6 in our league and, to me, that's a feather in our caps. It's a real blessing," Orr said. "We've compiled a tough non-league schedule again this year and that's going to make winning our league games real important again this season."

Orr also puts a premium on winning at home. Seton Hall was 14-2 at home last season (losing to Providence and Boston College) and 12-3 the year before.

Despite the presence of four returning starters who averaged double figures, Orr remains steadfast that defense will win championships.

"We're a defensive team and that is our foundation," Orr said. "We'll continue to be a tough, defensive team because that's where we hang our hats. We've got guys who can score points, but I want to see our defense creating opportunities by rebounding and running the floor."

If all the puzzle pieces come together for Orr, there's no reason to think Seton Hall can't get to another postseason tournament.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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