January 30, 2023

NEWARK, NJ – They began talking during the pandemic, reaching out via Zoom and SMS at a time when everyone was craving to connect. Dennis Gates, then at Cleveland State and now Missouri men’s head basketball coach, and Loyola Maryland head coach Tavaras Hardy came up with the idea of ​​creating group texts that would spread from one side of the country to the other, uniting young black coaches in an informal community.

Then and now there was no formal mission or initiation into the group. The purpose and membership are deliberately organic. Sometimes someone needs a little help with a 1-3-1 zone; Other times, it’s a guide to dealing with a losing streak.

The group was so helpful to Shaheen Holloway that the Seton Hall coach asked for a second to check his phone. Not wanting to forget anyone, he begins listing their names: Gates, Hardy, Ashley Howard (ex-La Salle head coach), Penny Collins (Tennessee State), Amir Abdur-Rahim (Kennesaw State), Eric Skeeters (ex-state head coach Delaware), LaVall Jordan (Ex-Butler Coach), Lance Irwin (Former Chicago State Head Coach), Mike Boynton (Oklahoma State), Jeremy Ballard (Florida International), Jean Prioleau (Former San Jose State Head Coach), Jack Owens (Ohio State Assistant Coach), Rodney Billups (Portland Trail Blazers Assistant Coach) and Will Jones (former North Carolina A&T Head Coach).

“I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me,” Holloway said. “During the pandemic, but especially this year.”

That last part — “especially this year” — is a mouthful. because this year should be the fun part. Holloway rose to Seton Hall from the drudgery of low-major life of worrying about enough towels in Saint Peter’s dressing room. Granted, no one will confuse the Pirates’ coffers with Texas’s, but unlike so many coaches who take the first big step up the coaching ladder, Holloway didn’t go into a rebuild. Seton Hall didn’t have to be excavated from some wreck.

The only mark Kevin Willard left was the relatively quiet success of five NCAA tournament appearances in the last six tournaments played, as well as 21 overall wins and 11 Big East wins a year ago. Holloway returned home — to his alma mater — to a roster of five returning players.

How hard could it be? “It was very difficult because when everything is new you’re trying to figure it out and gain confidence,” Holloway said. “And it’s not a one-way street.”

Holloway said so two days after the pirates toppled UConn in what appeared to be some kind of sign of a turnaround, and a day before an evisceration by Marquette showed the corner was a lot sharper than people might have thought.

The Golden Eagles, ninth in the Big East last season and now a half-game down in league standings, beat the Pirates by 21 points and shot 54 percent on what was reportedly the 18th-best defense in the nation, according to KenPom.com Attack so pretty that Seton Hall players were often left with whiplash and Oso Ighodaro was left with a wide-open dunk at least three times. This wasn’t just a one-sided evisceration, however. Marquette also recorded 44 deviations that contributed to Seton Hall’s 26 turnovers.

Holloway didn’t mince his words afterwards. He sat down for his post-game press conference, leaned into the microphone and looked the assembled media straight in the eyes. “I’m going to keep it very simple,” he said. “We kicked each other in the butt. Period.”

The Pirates started 1-4 in the Big East, then won four straight and then lost by 21 points. The big question is what happened? It’s what comes next.

“We got big-headed,” Holloway said. “We were quickly humiliated. Let’s see …”

There is a suspicion that college basketball programs sometimes run like factory machines, that you make things work and it’s all about keeping the assembly line running.

It’s a lot more nuanced than that, in fact. Holloway jetstreamed his own Cinderella Elite Eight to South Orange, NJ, which was so loved by his Saint Peter’s players that they came full force to his Seton Hall press conference. A former pirate, he grew up in the same New York, New Jersey basketball world where ten of his new players lived. A no-fuss attitude equals easy success.

It just turns out that neither basketball players nor coaches are cogs. This is not breaking news, nor is it specific to Seton Hall. A year ago, the same Marquette team that just eaten up and spat out the Pirates started 8-6 and lost five of six games in Shaka Smart’s first season. The trials in Villanova with Kyle Neptune and Duke with Jon Scheyer are well documented. Before Hubert Davis rolled all the way to the title game, many people wondered if North Carolina had made a mistake.

For Holloway most this Pirates aren’t his pirates. This is not an indication of who they are; it’s just a fact. They came to play for Willard and no matter how sensible it was to hire Holloway, it’s not who they signed on for. He took a crash course this summer and introduced them to “Coach Sha,” his gentler, kinder alter ego. But a COVID-19 outbreak robbed the Pirates of consistent preseason training. Not only was he reluctant to go ahead with many of his plans — a decision Holloway said he now regrets — his players got a quick turnaround when they were introduced to “Coach Holloway.”

“I’m sure they said, ‘Who the hell is that?'” he said.

And while college basketball experience is a valuable asset, it can be a liability when you’re changing coaches. “I hate to use the phrase ‘old dog, new tricks,’ but sometimes it is,” Holloway said.

On the other hand, this roster isn’t quite his choice. He didn’t spend years recruiting them, getting to know them and understanding them. They are quieter than he would like. Then again, matching Holloway’s voice would be a question for almost anyone. In the span of two possessions against Marquette, he stepped off the side of the bench, punching the air and screaming with delight after the Pirates scored, and grabbed his hands behind his neck and arched at the waist as if he were going to Prepare to hand over a later sale afterwards.

Finding a team leader was not easy. Kadary Richmond has the talent, Tyrese Samuel has the experience and Saint Peters transfer KC Ndefo has the connection to Holloway. But none have fully taken on the role. Instead, it falls to Holloway, who jokes that he gives his team his “best pre-game s—” but barely gets them excited.

“I’m still trying to crack their code,” he said.

With hindsight, which always offers the clearest vision, Holloway realizes that he should have come the debacle loss. The drills leading up to the marquette game weren’t nearly as sharp as he’d like. He’s taken the hit for it—”I made her practice, like s—” he said—but now maybe he has the lesson plan to work with.

As the old coaching adage goes, it’s a lot easier to learn from losing than from winning. Lose a game, especially like Seton Hall did against Marquette, and it’s a lot easier to grab everyone’s attention to point out weaknesses that they might not otherwise see through the glamor of victory.

It seems Holloway now has the attention of its pirates. “We understand better what he wants, how he wants us to play,” says Samuel. “We played poorly today too, but I think we kind of understood what we were doing wrong and that’s good. Knowing what we need to fix is ​​a good thing.”

Knowing is one thing. Doing it is another. An angry Holloway holds back twice when asked what he thinks might happen in the back half of the Big East season. “I don’t want to say anything that will get me into trouble,” he says.

Instead, he’ll probably just pick up the phone and text someone who understands him.

(Top Photo by Shaheen Holloway: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

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