SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Many fans of the Seton Hall men’s basketball team were ecstatic two Septembers ago when one of the nation’s most prolific guards in the Class of 2014 selected the small South Orange campus as his future home.
Isaiah Whitehead was a five-star recruit out of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, a hot-bed for basketball stars that once saw NBA all-star Stephon Marbury grace its heralded floor.
The talented guard was ranked No. 14 on the ESPN Top 100, easily the best recruit not only during Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard’s career, but the greatest incoming freshman the Pirates have seen in over a decade.
Much was made about Willard bringing on Whitehead’s Lincoln High School coach and AAU guru Dwayne “Tiny” Morton to his staff, but many overlooked the third wheel of the group, forward Desi Rodriguez, following the duo.
Following Saturday’s 90-82 victory over Xavier, in which Rodriguez scored a career-high 16 points with Whitehead adding 19 points, it might be time to start thinking of them as the package and Morton as the third wheel.
“You’re talking about two kids who played high school basketball together,” Willard said on Saturday. “Whenever they’re out there, they really understand each other well.”
That’s could not have been more apparent on Saturday.
With Whitehead making his Big East debut following a month-long absence due to a stress fracture in his ankle, Pirate Faithful saw what three and a half years worth of chemistry can bring to a program.
“Definitely [Whitehead] being on the floor is a big factor,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn't have felt more comfortable with him being on the floor. Just getting back to our winning ways like we were used to doing for three years. He was definitely a big part of the team today.”
The duo put on a show-stopping performance, both individually and collaboratively. Whitehead put his body on the line more than once. With Seton Hall trailing by seven late in the first half, Whitehead sparked a huge swing in momentum when he saved a Jaren Sina pass by diving into the baseline media table then continued to find Sterling Gibbs wide-open under the basket with a no-look pass.
“I think that's just us playing good going into the half and not giving up, not giving up being down going into the half,” Whitehead said of the play. “We just kept fighting, kept fighting and we got up.”
Rodriguez was standing at the free throw line when the SportsCenter Top 10-caliber play occurred. All he could say after the game about the play was “wow.”
“Just seeing him on the floor diving knowing that he just came off injury, that shows the team that we’re real good if we play hard,” Rodriguez said. “I think he set the tone today.”
Whitehead could have said the same thing about his teammate.
For one of the first times in his college career, Rodriguez was a go-to force in the second half, at one point scoring nine straight points to keep the Pirates within striking distance of the Mountaineers.
Throughout his 20 minutes of playing time, Rodriguez fought through strong box outs from Xavier center Matt Stainbrook and even a hard slap to the face late during a drive to the basket late in the second half.
“I don’t let teams get in my head,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t let players get in my head. I just play basketball. I know they were throwing a couple of dirty shots and stuff like that, but I just have to play strong, box out, get offensive rebounds and that’s what I did today.”
So, looking back to that day in September 2013 when Seton Hall’s future changed because a five-star guard and his recruiting-guru coach bought into the Pirate life, who would have thought Rodriguez, the third-wheel, would turn out to be just as important?
Note: Seton Hall will look to win their third straight game on Tuesday when they visit DePaul. The game can be seen on Fox Sports 1 at 9 p.m.