Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway is already making her mark

It’s the second week of September and Shaheen Holloway is treating this training as if it were the middle of March.

Seton Hall’s new coach is on the move, his mouth never stopping and his voice echoing off the walls of the Walsh Gymnasium, getting so close to his players in a single exercise that he seems like he’s part of it.

The rising star of last year’s NCAA Tournament demands full effort from his nine healthy players, executing this 90-minute session intensely as if he were training for his job.

“It’s who I am,” says Holloway, 45, a replacement for Kevin Willard at the school where he was once a star point guard and later an assistant coach. “That’s how I played. I want guys the same way.

It’s been a whirlwind six months for the Queens native, from being a nondescript head coach at Saint Peter’s to starring in March Madness to landing his dream job at Seton Hall. He threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Mets game, announced the Jets’ third-round pick (tight end Jeremy Ruckert) in the NFL Draft in Las Vegas, appeared on the “All the Smoke” with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, and spoke at the Foot Locker Foundation Gala.

Shaheen Holloway gives instructions during Seton Hall training.
Keith Egan/SHU Athletics

All this while bringing in seven new players to complete what was a depleted roster. His popularity at his alma mater is at its peak. Athletic director Bryan Felt said a number of season tickets were purchased on the day of Holloway’s introductory press conference, and have since increased. Holloway is still stopped on campus for photos. In the spring, the Center for Sports Media at Seton Hall was hosting its speaker series, and Alex Rodriguez was one of the guests. Holloway joined him.

“Shaheen goes on stage to see A-Rod and gets a standing ovation,” Felt recalled. “I tell you, that ovation rocked the house. Even A-Rod is like, ‘What the hell, I didn’t get half of it.’ Then the queue to see Sha’ was 10 times longer than A-Rod’s.

He added: “There’s a level of excitement with him coming around our program that’s on another level.”

This didn’t change the way Holloway operates, however. Assistant coach Rasheen Davis jokes that Holloway treated Saint Peter’s like Seton Hall and Seton Hall like the Knicks. He is determined to win. He doesn’t feel – or act – like a celebrity.

“As a player I had something to prove, and as a coach I had something to prove,” Holloway said. “I’m in a Power Six conference. What I did last year, it doesn’t matter. I have to prove it to myself, I have to prove it to the players, to the coaches, to the people in the league.

Shaheen Holloway works out a drill with a Seton Hall player during training.
Shaheen Holloway works out a drill with a Seton Hall player during training.
Keith Egan/SHU Athletics

There was a period of adjustment for Seton Hall players, which is still ongoing. Holloway can only coach one way. He doesn’t understand how anyone can play basketball without putting in maximum effort. Look at the NBA, he says – nobody plays cool. They are all hungry and have something to prove. Breaks in his training are rare. It is an exercise followed by another and another.

“At first it was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s trying to kill us,'” said junior forward Tyrese Samuel, one of five returning players. “Now we embrace it. Coach Willard’s workouts were intense. His are just on another level. … He wants everyone to play ball against the wall.

“It’s really contagious. You see him so passionate on the pitch, you want to play for him. He leads the guys.

Holloway will go after the players. He expects their best every day. He breaks down guys to build them up. This is where newcomer KC Ndefo, his star striker at Saint Peter’s, plays such a big role. Ndefo has already been there several times with Holloway. He knows what the coach expects. His message to his teammates from the start was simple:

Shaheen Holloway
Shaheen Holloway
Keith Egan/SHU Athletics

“It’s not how he sends the message, it’s the message,” Ndefo told them.

The focus of this workout is defense, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Holloway. When he started as an assistant coach, under Willard at Iona, Willard gave him defense.

Holloway preaches the importance of this end of the floor. You won’t see the field, he tells his players, without defending. During practice, Holloway makes a point of emphasizing the physical. He’s most animated when Samuel blocks a shot at the rim, jumping up and down excitedly. In a five-on-three defensive drill, players must sprint if their defense isn’t up to Holloway’s standards. He punches the air in frustration after a few hoops are made. “Keep the ball out of the paint,” roared the coach repeatedly after a bad defensive set. After an offensive player is clearly fouled on a layup attempt, Holloway tells him to step up harder next time. He wants contact during training.

“We start it there and then we rewind it,” Holloway explains. “But you have to start somewhere first.”

Holloway has yet to coach a Big East game, and expectations of him are incredibly high. His only aim is to prepare for the season and make up for the ground he believes was lost this summer when Seton Hall training was almost all for skill development as so many players were injured. Holloway clarifies that this will not happen quickly. In Saint-Pierre, it took him four years for this magical race in March. The Pirates won’t instantly make the top 20. His goal for this year is to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid and lay the groundwork for how his program will work. But that doesn’t mean the bar isn’t being pushed through the roof by Holloway. He not only dreams of returning to the Elite Eight, but beyond.

“For me, it just made me work harder, because I want to be back there,” Holloway says. “I saw that, I felt that feeling. I want to come back to that. I want to bring my school back to this, and that’s the goal. The goal is to get there, go through it and reach new heights.

When asked if reaching a Final Four at Seton Hall was realistic, Holloway immediately smiled and nodded.

New York Post

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