As further proof that in college basketball things can turn around in a hurry, we bring you, live from South Orange, N.J., (only not lately), the Seton Hall Pirates.
After overcoming an 18-point deficit early in the first half of Saturday's NCAA national championship tournament semifinal against favored Duke, the Pirates will be back in your TV rooms again Monday night, facing Michigan for the title.It's been 21 days since the Seton Hall players and coaches have seen their campus, located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. They crossed the Mississippi for something called the West Regional, and they're still here. They went from Tucson to Denver to Seattle. Tuesday they'll probably climb Mt. Rainier and then head on home.
Already in their jetstream are the likes of Indiana, Nevada-Las Vegas and, now, the Duke Blue Devils. Seton Hall thrives on aristocracy. Here they are, making their second appearance ever in the 51-year-old NCAA tournament, and they're acting like they're a collective John Wooden.
Bringing up the Pirates' un-noteworthy basketball past is a lot like bringing up Oprah Winfrey's weight. It's all behind them. For the moment, anyway.
That the Pirates could reverse Saturday's 18-point first-half deficit and turn it into a 35-point win was nothing out of the ordinary when compared to what they've done to their program the past couple of years.
For years, they were to basketball what the monologue is to Johnny Carson. The Big East liked having them around for laughs . . . and wins. They joined the league in 1982. They won a game a couple of years later. Once, they lost 15 Big East games in a row. Playing Seton Hall was like having the night off. They were the kind of team for whom an opponent would send a limo to get them to the arena.
They played in The Meadowlands Arena but they never, until this year, sold it out. Boosters in their fan club had automatic dual membership in the National Masochist Society. Watching the Hall play the likes of Georgetown and St. John's and Syracuse each year was like watching a tourist in Central Park.
But just as the outlook was looking the most bleak, and just as Coach P.J. Carlesimo was looking for an analyst, the transformation began. And what has happened since to Seton Hall could serve as a primer for any school looking for a major college turnaround.
Basically, two things happened in Seton Hall's favor. One, they got their program so far in the depths that they actually became attractive to blue-chip players. And two, they raided the Olympic Games.
After a woeful 1985 season that included a 1-15 effort in the Big East, Carlesimo made his customary rounds of the New York-area gyms and playgrounds. There, much to his delight, not to mention surprise, he discovered that three of the best players in New York City decided that they'd like to play near home, at Seton Hall.
As one of those players, Darryl Walker, explained in Seattle the day before playing Duke, "It was a situation that I knew I could play in immediately. I knew I wouldn't have to sit on the bench."
Like he would have at a North Carolina or a Georgetown or a Notre Dame.
Walker was the 1985 Player of the Year in New York State. He was joined at Seton Hall in 1985-86 by two other New York All-City and All-State players in Gerald Greene and John Morton, both of whom signed up as Pirates for largely the same reason as Walker - an intense dislike of pine time.
Not that this made the difference immediately. But it helped.
Then the Hall went out and expanded its horizons. Carlesimo got a line on two international players. One was Ramon Ramos of Puerto Rico, a 6-foot-8, 250-pounder who could play center on either football or basketball, or on any other team he wanted.
The other was a sharpshooting Australian named Andrew Gaze, who barnstormed with a Melbourne team through the Big East in 1986 and made an impression with a 32-point scoring average.
To make long-distance recruiting stories short, both signed up, creating a situation that saw Seton Hall of New Jersey having no less than two players in the Seoul Olympic basketball tournament last September - and neither one was an American.
Anyway, it was Ramos, Gaze, Walker, Greene and Morton who were the principle players yesterday as Duke became just another victim of the bullies from South Orange. Ramos had a game-high 12 rebounds, Gaze had a team-high 20 points. Walker had 19 points (and, just as important, 30 big minutes); Greene had 17 points and eight assists, and Morton had 13 points.
Carlesimo wore his customary smile after the game; the smile of a man who knows where he's been and appreciates where he now is.
"I'm still the same coach I've always been," he demurred. "I've just got better players."
Tomorrow night, they'll see about winning a national championship for Seton Hall. And just in the knick of time. Tuesday, they'll all be out of eligibility. Things happen in a hurry in college basketball.