If Duke, UNC, Kansas or Villanova are going to win another national title, we have to celebrate something besides another blueblood champion. Watching another blueblood Final Four is nauseating and almost seems antithetical to the glorified ideal of March Madness.
But there are other winners each March, not just the ones left dancing at the end of the One Shining Moment, folks like Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens or Ron Hunter flying out of his chair. Hardware isn’t handed out, but the impact of breakout stars is singed on our hippocampi. Duke won the 2010 national title, but the casual college hoops fan doesn’t remember their nondescript starters.
There are rewards in other forms for March Madness’ leading men. For every Cinderella, there’s a program-changing head coach behind the wheel, using the exposure as a launching pad for his next career move. Porter Moser parlayed Chicago-Loyola’s Final Four run into the HC job at Oklahoma. Brad Underwood turned a run by spunky Stephen F. Austin into a job at Oklahoma State, and Brad Stevens turned two championship games at Butler into a head coaching gig with the Boston Celtics. And this March, San Francisco’s Todd Golden locked down the most high-profile spot on the coaching carousel when the Florida Gators came calling, despite his Dons getting bounced in the first round by Murray State.
And now we have Shaheen Holloway. The St. Peter’s coach’s rise has been meteoric, after his Peacocks became the first-ever 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight And so his alma mater, Seton Hall, came calling.
Holloway pulled off the trifecta of a pay raise, coaching a major program in the greater New York tri-state area that just played in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season, and returns to place he starred at as a player. This is the epitome of what March Madness is about.
Sure, there were bigger jobs out there, like the Maryland opening, that his predecessor Kevin Willard hopscotched to College Park to accept, or that Florida job. Willard takes over an ACC program camping out in the Big 10 that’s fallen on some hard luck. Holloway takes the reins with Seton Hall in a prime position to challenge in the Big East.
For outside observers, March success can seem sudden and the result of good kismet, but mostly, it’s a product of years of painstaking hard work meeting opportunities by resilient mid-major juniors, seniors, and coaching staffs. Cinderella isn’t all about pumpkins turning into carriages, and mice into coachmen. Cinderella and those mice did plenty of hard work to get to their ball, too. Meanwhile, Holloway constructed a conference champion that reached the Elite Eight, from a mid-major program that was 10-22 during his inaugural season.
The hard part is what comes next. In contrast to Juwan Howard and Hubert Davis’ successful turnarounds, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Memphis’ Penny Hardaway have faced adversity getting their alma maters back on track. However, Holloway arrives with built-in experience as a program builder. He won’t be relying on his name to lure in five-star one-and-done recruits. He’s also spent much of his adult life getting familiar with the local recruiting scene. The Pirates are losing their top three scorers and four of their top five in Jared Rhoden, Bryce Aiken, Myles Cale, and Alexis Yetna, as well as shot-blocker Ike Obiagu.
The rule that says stars at the NBA level don’t make great coaches has proven to apply to the college ranks. Holloway was a standout player, recruit, and McDonald’s All-American Game MVP, but not enough of a star that he was able to take the express elevator to the top of the coaching ranks. His workman-like approach to recruiting and coaching at one of the most difficult jobs in the mid-majors should translate at Seton Hall, which faces an uphill climb rising against the likes of Providence, Villanova, and UConn.
Like Hubert Davis, he spent a decade as an assistant at his alma mater before getting the Saint Peter’s job. However, if Holloway can overachieve at Seton Hall, as he did at Saint Peter’s, the sky’s the limit for a program which recruits from a basketball hotbed and calls a 19,500-seat former NBA arena its home. P.J. Carlesimo had Seton Hall in a national championship and Final Four three decades ago. A national championship or bust mentality isn’t the barometer for success at Seton Hall, but a March Madness breakthrough after two decades of first weekend exits would be welcomed for an area that’s starving for a winner.