Pirates strike fear again

Basketball: With the addition of Eddie Griffin, last year's No. 1-rated prep player, Seton Hall can't be counted out in the national title chase.

January 06, 2001|By Sam Borden | Sam Borden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - There was a moment, early in Seton Hall's game with the University of Hartford on Dec. 27, when the status of the Pirates' basketball program was captured perfectly.

For the duration of a 90-second television timeout, coach Tommy Amaker leaned forward in his padded bench chair while his players hunched over on little green stools that the managers set out during breaks in the action.

Marcus Toney-El, the lanky freshman forward, sat to Amaker's left, spindly freshman point guard Andre Barrett was in front of him and the enormous sophomore center, Samuel Dalembert, was flush right.

And standing above them, his massive arms akimbo, was Eddie Griffin.

Such is the state of Seton Hall hoops these days that Griffin - all 6 feet 9 inches, 220 pounds of him - stands at the epicenter of what could be the Pirates' most significant move to join college basketball's top ranks in the past decade.

Griffin, who leads the No. 11 Pirates (10-2) against No. 19 Georgetown (12-0) today at MCI Center, also represents what may be Amaker's biggest coup since arriving in New Jersey in 1997. The former Duke player and assistant coach immediately demonstrated his savvy by lifting the Pirates from the mid-'90s doldrums (38-48 from 1994 to 1996) back into the upper echelon of Division I programs.

Appearances in the NIT during his first two seasons showed progress was being made, while last year's improbable run to the NCAA regional semifinals was proof that the sleeping giant had ended its slumbers.

But Amaker, has one-upped himself. This season, he showcased his recruiting skills by bringing what most analysts saw as the best-ever freshman class to East Orange, including the No. 1 prep player in the country: Griffin.

Much of the credit for Griffin's commitment to the Pirates goes to Toney-El and Barrett. (Griffin and Barrett live together on campus; Barrett brought the TV and microwave, Griffin the refrigerator and stereo.)

The trio, all stars for their high school programs, became friends while playing for various summer teams and at camps around the country. Toney-El committed to Seton Hall last July and Barrett on Aug. 5. It took Griffin only two days to follow suit.

"It was one of the biggest factors in my coming to play here," said Griffin, who resisted pressure to make the jump to the NBA as well as offers from marquee college teams, by opting to enroll at Seton Hall. "I've played with both of them before and we didn't have to start at the beginning."

"Most kids go off to college and are faced with all sorts of new things right off," said Toney-El, "but I talked to Ed and Andre all the time before we got here. We already had that bond."

That familiarity - "comfort" as Amaker calls it - has paid dividends for the rookies, but most noticeably for Griffin. The forward averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds during his senior season at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, and has nearly maintained that pace in college (21 points and 13 rebounds).

Two game-saving blocked shots (at Clemson and at home against Pennsylvania) have highlighted a resurgence on the defensive end, and the Pirates' ranking carries expectations for greatness once March rolls around.

"I wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than a national title with this group," Griffin says assuredly when asked about his expectations. "I wouldn't be satisfied leaving without that."

But therein lies the loosest thread in Seton Hall's security blanket. Unless the Pirates capture the national title this year, Griffin may leave campus unsatisfied. How long will his 86-inch wingspan patrol the paint of the Continental Airlines Arena as a Pirate, as opposed to a professional?

"Part of the reason Eddie was attracted to Seton Hall was because of the honesty and open communication that we had," said Amaker. "[Leaving] is always a possibility. We'll evaluate things at the end of every year and see what's best for him."

"It would be great for Eddie to stay all four years," said Toney-El, "but it's not what I expect. He likes college basketball and that's why he's here now. What happens in the future, who knows?"

If he continues at his pace, Griffin may become only the second college freshman to earn first-team All-America honors (the first was Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale).

College has given Griffin a chance to mature emotionally. As much as he may be superior to his teammates in certain areas on the court, there is one thing that they have done that he has not: walked to the stage in a high school graduation ceremony.

Griffin received a diploma from Roman Catholic, but did not participate in commencement because he was serving a school suspension for fighting with a teammate.

"I like to think I've grown a lot since then," Griffin said sheepishly. "I learned to control myself more and be responsible for my actions."

Although Amaker would prefer that Griffin stay at Seton Hall four years and receive his degree, the coach believes that even if his biggest diamond does leave early, he will drape a cap and gown on his large frame at some point. Griffin points out that he has an even greater force pushing him: his mother.

"That's always been my goal to walk in a graduation," Griffin said with a laugh, "but my mom always reminds me. She tells me that since I didn't walk in high school, I sure better walk in college."

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