NEWARK — Seton Hall honored its 1992-93 team on Saturday afternoon, which only served to underscore how far away the current team is from those glory days.
The ’93 team — coached by current Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo and starring players like Terry Dehere and Jerry Walker — began the season 14-1, went 28-7, and won the Big East regular season and tournament titles before being bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Western Kentucky.
That Western Kentucky team was coached by Ralph Willard, whose son, Kevin Willard, now coaches the Pirates.
After his team lost to Cincinnati, 65-59, to fall to 13-9, 2-7 in the Big East, the younger Willard seemed at a loss to explain his team’s struggles.
“I would have to say they’re not getting it right now,” said the coach who has lost three straight.
Carlesimo, who led the Pirates to the brink of an NCAA championship in 1989, said some nice things about Willard during a halftime ceremony, maintaing that Willard was doing a “great job” of keeping New Jersey kids at home.
“I slipped him a $50 before I went out,” Willard cracked.
The Seton Hall roster actually includes as many players from Jersey (four) as it does from overseas.
Willard said that Carlesimo has been a great “sounding board” and has helped him during his three-plus years at Seton Hall, which have yet to yield an NCAA Tournament bid.
“P.J.’s been great,” Willard said. “The one thing that he talked about was the years he really struggled were his darkest years, his toughest years. That’s what made the run so special.”
Carlesimo did make a run, making Seton Hall relevant nationally in the late 1980s and early ’90s before he departed for the NBA.
Now, the Pirates are bringing up the rear of the Big East Conference with an uncertain future in the Catholic 7 ahead.
Still, Willard maintains he sees a run of his own coming.
“We’re not that far away,” he said. “Most of our guys are young, we’re a young basketball team. We’re going through it right now. Some of our younger guys are struggling and we’re not too far away.”
Willard pointed out that next year’s team will bring back injured forward Patrik Auda (out for the season with a foot injury) and will bring in desperately-needed point guard Sterling Gibbs (sitting out after transferring).
He added that Brandon Mobley, the team’s talented sophomore forward, would need shoulder surgery after the season and that he’s playing through a lot of pain now.
Willard said he didn’t like to make excuses, but pointed out that they started the Big East season with only seven healthy bodies, “which mentally and physically was really challenging for some of our guys.”
Dehere and Walker clearly want to see a return to glory as Willard predicts.
They said what made their teams so special was they were able to keep some of the best Jersey guys at home.
“We were fortunate back then, of course, to have a lot of local kids stay home and play together,” said Dehere, the all-time leading scorer in program history. “We had a more family setting here, and hopefully they can get back to that.”
In addition to the players from the ’93 team, Bobby Gonzalez-Era players Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson (a Jersey native himself) sat courtside. They had their own opinions about the current team’s struggles.
“To me, I feel like it’s a pride thing,” said Pope, who graduated last year and said he’s now hoping to make an NBA summer league roster. “A lot of those guys don’t have pride, Seton Hall pride.
“They want to win, they want to play well, but they don’t understand they’re home. You gotta play like it’s your last game at home.”
So does he think they’re doing that?
“I don’t see it,” Pope said. “I see the guys that play the majority of the minutes play like that, but the guys that’s coming in that don’t play a lot, I don’t think they’re engaged in the game. Coach Willard is probably more enthusiastic about the game than anybody out there right now. He’s jumping up and down, he feel like he want to play.”
Fuquan Edwin, a homegrown New Jersey guy from Paterson, said the team wants to win, moreso on a day when the ’93 team was honored.
He said Seton Hall doesn’t necessarily need more Jersey guys, just a commitment from whoever is here.
“Even though Jersey do have a lot of talented players, there’s talented players all over the world,” said Edwin, who had 16 points in the loss. “We just gotta be able to pull through and connect as one. If we do that we can turn the season around; it’s not too late.”
But still a long way from ’93.
Photo: USA Today