By Andrew Kahn
In the Big East championship on Saturday, Isaiah Whitehead made both head coaches fall to the court. In the first half, his errant pass sailed out of bounds, causing a teammate to bump Villanova’s Jay Wright, who tried to duck and ended up on his back. Kevin Willard would end up in a similar position with 18 seconds left in the game, after Whitehead’s and-one bucket tied the game. And so it’s gone for Whitehead and Seton Hall the past few weeks: opponents have folded; supporters can’t contain their excitement.
Starting with a February 25th win over Providence, Whitehead has scored at least 20 points in seven straight games, including a career-high 33 against DePaul. The sophomore scored 70 points in three days—and added 19 rebounds and 17 assists—to lead Seton Hall to its first Big East title since 1993. The Pirates, a 6 seed in the Midwest Region, will play 11 seed Gonzaga in Denver on Thursday.
Whitehead is a Coney Island native who attended Lincoln High School, known for producing Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Stephenson. A McDonald’s All American and top-15 recruit, he arrived at Seton Hall last season with considerable hype. While he did make the Big East All-Rookie team, he missed nine games with a stress fracture in his foot, didn’t shoot particularly well, and was the subject of rumors regarding team chemistry issues. Seton Hall, at one point 15-6 and 5-4 in the Big East, lost nine of its final 10 games.
This season has been totally different for Whitehead and the Pirates. They lost four of five in January (including twice to Villanova), but bounced back. Since, they’ve only lost two of their 14 games, both to Butler. The 6’4” Whitehead, who shifted to point guard this season, has been the main reason.
He was in attack mode from the start against Villanova on Saturday. Midway through the first half, he scored on three straight possessions. The first basket came on a nifty step-back off a half spin, just inside the three-point line. Next, he came off a ball screen, crossed over to get a step past his defender, elevated off of two feet (which were both in the paint), and converted a one-handed floater. Feeling confident, he attacked immediately upon receiving a pass the next possession and converted a similar floater.
The play of the game, though, was of course the one that won it and sent Willard to the deck. When a screen left hobbled big man Daniel Ochefu defending him, Whitehead wasted no time dribbling past him to his right. Kris Jenkins slid over to help and tried to take a charge, but Whitehead was already in the air. The bank shot bobbled around the rim a bit before dropping, a dramatic ending to a brilliant play. Whitehead made the free throw to give Seton Hall a one-point lead.
Whitehead is averaging five assists this season, but turnovers have been an issue. He had eight turnovers against Villanova. While four came on passes that hit a teammate’s hands, a couple had too much steam on them; two were simply careless dribbling. Whitehead does a great job creating for others and Willard undoubtedly wants him to remain aggressive. But his 3.5 turnovers per game this season are the third most in the country among major conference players. That, and continuing to hone his jumper and shot selection—he’s at 39 percent from the field and 38 from deep, up two and four percentage points, respectively, from last year—are the next phases in his development.
For now, opponents better “watch out,” to use Whitehead’s phrase from his post-Villanova press conference. “We really defend at a high level,” he added. “When we get on the break, it’s hard to stop us. It really doesn’t matter who we play—we’re up for the challenge.”
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.