Seton Hall is starting to take on the personality of its coach, Shaheen Holloway

user avatar Author: Editors Desk, Dana O'Neil Source: N.Y Times
January 20, 2024 at 21:32
(Top photo of Kadary Richmond shooting against Ryan Kalkbrenner: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)
(Top photo of Kadary Richmond shooting against Ryan Kalkbrenner: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

The Pirates' players might not be exactly like Shaheen Holloway, but the way they're grinding out games makes it obvious who's in charge.


NEWARK, N.J. — Nineteen games into the season, Shaheen Holloway admits he still does not have an alpha dog. It is a weird place from which to operate for the Seton Hall coach, because when it comes to dog mentality, Holloway is the alpha and the omega. The beginning and the end. If there is such a thing as Easy Street, Holloway’s GPS never steered him there. He staked a basketball rep off of grit and tenaciousness, and then made a career out of nipping at the heels of opponents and pushing back on people’s expectations.

“Alpha by committee’’ is how the coach describes his Seton Hall team when he comes to the phone following a Friday afternoon practice. “I’ve got really good guys, but they’re all a little laid back.’’ What Holloway has found, however, and Big East opponents are learning is that just because there’s no alpha, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a bunch of dogs on the court.

The Pirates do not behave like their coach. Holloway does not coach a game so much as he lives it. His defensive stance is, on occasion, better than anyone’s on the court, and he gestures, points, hops and body-Englishes every pass, shot and rotation. Seton Hall players are not emotionless, but they are decidedly more like their best player than their alpha coach. Kadary Richmond thinks basketball and feels it. In Saturday afternoon’s 97-94, triple-overtime loss to Creighton, you could watch Richmond trying to solve the riddle that is 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner, breaking down when to go at him and when to pull up. He didn’t gesticulate to tell his teammates to set a screen; rather he subtly shifted his vision to the right, his eyeballs doing the talking. Lane cleared, drive made, bucket claimed.

But the Pirates play exactly like Holloway. They are dogs, which is why this seemingly opposite attract marriage is working so incredibly well. “We feel like every day we have something to prove to the world,’’ says senior guard Dre Davis. “We feel as though we are one of the best teams in the Big East and in the country, and every day, we just want to prove that.’’ It is easy to talk the talk, and crow about disrespect. Seton Hall has ample bulletin board material. The Pirates were picked ninth in the Big East and have since beaten the teams chosen first, third, fifth and seventh.

But they did not win those games by posturing and posing. The Pirates vacuum up rebounds (seventh in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage — 38.3 per KenPom), drive themselves fearlessly into the paint and yet welcome no one into the key on the defensive end. It says everything that the Hall is one of the nation’s best at taking 2-pointers (84th percentile per CBB Analytics) and one of the worst at chucking 3s (10th).

Please take your pretty game elsewhere. This is New Jersey. We prefer the playground.


“We have to get the culture right now,” Shaheen Holloway says. (Noah K. Murray / AP)
“We have to get the culture right now,” Shaheen Holloway says. (Noah K. Murray / AP)

To be clear, things were not always so well in tune. Seton Hall lost earlier this season to USC, to Iowa, and to Rutgers, making the Pirates a less than stellar 3-2 in Quad 2 and 3 games. They proceeded to undo all the emotional goodwill they fostered in an upset of UConn by laying an egg at Xavier, wiped off the floor by 20.

Gifted a 10-day holiday break after that loss and before the next game, Holloway says he used that time for a little minicamp. Asked if by minicamp he meant boot camp, the coach laughs. “Yes, ma’am,’’ he tells The Athletic. “You could say that.’’

While driving the Pirates hard, Holloway also tried to get them to understand why he was doing it. This did not come naturally or easily. Holloway was not raised in the era of explanations. He played at St. Patrick High School for Kevin Boyle, a man whose name always seemed to be followed by the addendum “fiery Irishman.’’ Players only didn’t challenge authority, they didn’t so much as blink twice if that might be perceived as insolent.

But this is a different era where once a coach might have bent everyone to his will, now they have to find a way to at least meet their athletes in the middle. Holloway doesn’t like to make anything about him. He remains reticent to do interviews, not because he’s standoffish but because he fears his connection to Seton Hall threatens to overshadow his players’ current meaningfulness to the place. But among his players, at least, he felt like he needed a little me time. “Who I am and why I coach the way I coach,’’ he says.

The Pirates remain very much in the get-to-know-you phase with their coach. The man who led Saint Peter’s on a miraculous Elite Eight run in 2022 is only in Year 2 at Seton Hall, and yet already his roster has been largely reconstituted. A year ago, the Pirates finished 17-15 and 10-10 in the league, respectable if not fantastic (and a large reason that the ninth-place pick made sense). Yet three players bolted from the team, two drawn to the greener pastures of NIL — Tyrese Samuel to Florida, and Tray Jackson to Michigan. Two others also bolted, Tae Davis to Notre Dame and Femi Odukale to New Mexico State.

The Hall is simply not built of the same stuff as other schools around the country, not even of all of its Big East brethren. It is a small, urban campus with a loyal fan base, but there is no Vitamin Water king a la Mike Repole at St. John’s. The school only formed a collective in October. This year, much of the donor base was rightly and wisely guided toward the construction of a desperately needed $52 million practice facility.

“It is what it is,’’ Holloway says of NIL. “You gotta have it to be successful. But you also have to get the right mix for you. You can’t go out and try to get everybody. The game of basketball is bigger than all of us, and I want people who understand that. We have to get the culture right now. We can’t turn a blind eye to (NIL); you can’t get around it but you have to get it right.’’ Holloway went out and found guys who do, in fact, suit him — players who either were cast aside elsewhere or came from programs that don’t merit much mention: Dylan Addae-Wusu, whom Rick Pitino did not seem sad to leave St. John’s; Jaden Bediako from Santa Clara; and Elijah Hutchins-Everett from Austin Peay.

But all of the movement means that nearly everyone among the starting rotation started somewhere else — Richmond at Syracuse, Davis at Louisville, Al-Amir Dawes at Clemson. Only two players who see the court with any regularity began their careers organically at Seton Hall and one — Isaiah Coleman — is a freshman.

So that boot camp became a get-to-know-me camp, too. “The passion and the grit and the chip on my shoulder, I don’t take nothing for granted, and this generation, I think sometimes they take things for granted,’’ Holloway says. “Not all of them, not all of the time, but a lot of the time, ‘It’s, hey, everything’s OK.’ No, it’s not OK. Not if you want to be a winner. They had to understand why I take things to heart, and once they did, I think it was a whole different perspective.”

Since that talk, the Pirates have lost once — and it took three overtimes to do it. Strangely, the Creighton loss was every bit as emblematic of what Seton Hall is as a win might have been. The Bluejays have two players picked to the first team All-Big East in the preseason (Kalkbrenner and Trey Alexander) and a third on the second team (Baylor Scheierman). There’s nary a Pirate to be found on the list.

Yet in a rock fight that felt like a 1980s Big East game, the two teams went toe-to-toe in an unrelenting slugfest. At one point deep in the third overtime, Wusu came over to Richmond, the two bent over, tugging at their shorts — the universal sign of exhaustion. They slapped hands, and went back to work, Richmond (who finished with the first Seton Hall triple-double since Eddie Griffin in 2001) probing the Creighton defense until he could set up Coleman, who got fouled on a jumper.

Five players from the two teams played 50-plus minutes. It would have been six, if Davis hadn’t fouled out. The Pirates trailed by four with a minute left in the first OT, by four again with 24 seconds in the second overtime and each time rallied. They were, in fact, down one with 12 seconds left in OT No. 2, and Creighton had the ball. Impossible scenario. Until Richmond swiped an inbounds pass. Amid the mayhem at the Prudential Center, he missed his layup, but Dawes grabbed the weakside rebound for the apparent lead. Lost in the din, the official whistled a foul before the shot. No bucket. Richmond went to the line, made just one of two and along came OT No. 3.

It was not, to the naked eyeball, a fair whistle. The game played more like a rugby match than a basketball game, Bediako bodying Kalkbrenner with so much ferocity that Creighton coach Doug McDermott at one point threw a piece of paper in the air in exasperation. Yet the unseen foul earned the whistle.

Had the Pirates come into the postgame furious, no one would have blamed them. Their fans exited the arena in a huff, grousing and catcalling at the officials before exiting into the New Jersey freeze. Instead, players and coach said nothing, Holloway twice refusing to take the bait on a question about the officiating and Dawes pleading ignorance. Instead, they talked about missed opportunities, and forward progress.

Holloway, who loves a moral victory as much as Pitino, admitted he was sour, but that, he explained, was only because of the final score. “I’m sour, but that was a helluva basketball game,” he said. “I’m super disappointed in the loss, anyone who knows me understands that. But we walk out of here with our heads held high.”

Dana O’Neil, a senior writer for The Athletic, has worked for more than 25 years as a sports writer, covering the Final Four, the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and NHL playoffs. She has worked previously at ESPN and the Philadelphia Daily News. She is the author of three books, including "The Big East: Inside the Most Entertaining and Influential Conference in College Basketball History." Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaONeilWriter


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