First published in The Eastern Observer:
HACKENSACK,NJ- As I sit down to write out my thoughts/analysis of the Seton Hall Pirates men’s basketball team heading into the season of the unknown (2020-21), I immediately realize that I still have a bit of a disgusted “hangover” that we didn’t get to see how good last season’s team really was. Then I realize, maybe this year’s seniors (Sandro Mamukelashvili, Myles Cale and Shavar Reynolds) have that fire in their collective bellies that their fanbase have to “finish” what Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight and Romaro Gill started this time last year. Well, it is Thanksgiving Eve and I am very “thankful” that college basketball has returned, albeit to a season that I don’t know if anyone knows what to expect.
Well Pirate Fans, we are back into more familiar times as we begin the 2020-21 season Friday versus Louisville. Last year, one that saw our Pirates claim a share of the Big East Regular Season Championship, the target was clearly on our backs. We were supposed to be good. We were supposed to be near the top of the Big East standings. We were supposed to go to the Big Dance for a school-record 5th year in a row. But alas, the so-called “experts” see us as a middle of the road Big East team. The Pirates were picked to finish 5th by its peers in the Big East Conference. Other publications I glanced at had us anywhere from 3rd to 6th. While I do not necessarily agree with their predictions, this is exactly where the Pirates are dangerous, when we are overlooked.
This year’s edition of the Seton Hall Pirates will undoubtedly be led by our aforementioned seniors. Potential NBA Draft pick PF Sandro Mamukelashvili decided to return for his senior year after a Rocky 3-like off-season in the woods of Pennsylvania. He was a unanimous selection to the First-Team All-Big East Pre-Season Team and Head Coach Kevin Willard believes he is one of the best college basketball players in the country. Senior wing Myles Cale had a pretty uneven and quiet junior season but still gained valuable playtime whether he started or came of the bench. Speaking of Rocky-type stories, senior guard Shavar Reynolds Jr. has made a truly inspiration jump from walk-on to defensive stopper to whom Coach Willard said was the best player on the team this summer. Oh and he has ice in his veins when it comes to big shots as well! These 3 seniors along with senior point guard transfer Bryce Aiken will be the steady influences in the locker room and on the court. At the junior level, we have a budding star in wing Jared Rhoden, another leader of this team and BIG man Ike Obiagu, who’ll be tasked to make the leap in overall improvement to his game that Ro Gill wowed the college basketball with last season. Obiagu has 2 things going for him this year. He has another offseason under his belt being tutored by future head coach in the making Grant Billmeier. (I’m a bit worried that the fan’s expectations for Obiagu will be a bit too high after seeing how well Gill performed last season) Secondly, he has a stronger build than Gill with a typical 1990’s NBA center’s body. If he improves his footwork in the paint and learns to squeeze those rebounds, he will be a defensive force just like Gill was last season. Anything he can give to the offensive cause will be pure gravy for this team. Another junior joining the ranks this season will be Canisius-transfer Takal Molson. Molson was the MAAC Conference Rookie of the Year in 2018, averaging 12.9 ppg and then grew that to 16.9 ppg his sophomore season there. He is also recognized as a defensive force as well. Sophomore PF Tyrese Samuel flashed some serious potential in 2020 and adds yet another big body (6’10”) to Willard’s rotation. Samuel also showed a sweet stroke from the outside at times, which makes him a match-up nightmare. If Samuel can replicate Rhoden’s freshman to sophomore year jump in his overall game, we have yet another NBA-caliber player on our deep roster. The other sophomore on the roster is Missouri-transfer Tray Jackson. We’ll see if the covid-shortened season will affect Jackson’s role on this team. He certainly would have benefitted from our usual “spring-board” games against mid-majors that the Pirates played in before the start of the Big East season grind. Lastly, we have 2 incoming freshman guards in Jahari Long, who’s more of a point guard and Dimingus Stevens, a shooter we’re hopeful develops as the “next” Myles Powell one day.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Let’s start with a bounce-back season from Myles Cale and that second year “leap” for Tyrese Samuel….Being under-rated and under the radar has always been a good thing for the Pirates. It just seemed like every time they’d ascend into Top 10 or Top 15 territory, we start to play below expectations and lose games we shouldn’t losing….Another victim to missing out on the early mid-major games potentially could be Aiken’s return to a 100% healthy player. The Big East games will come early, hard and furious now without the benefit of playing the St. Peter’s and FDU’s of the world early….Defense will be a major component to the success of this team and we’re going to soon realize how sneaky good Shavar Reynolds Jr. really is and how much we’re going to miss Romaro Gill if Obiagu doesn’t improve as expected….Jared Rhoden will be even better than what’s expected, I see at least a 2nd Team All-Big East designation for him….One thing that scares me is our back court depth if Freshman C Jeff Ngandu continues to be stuck in Canada due to the on-going covid-19 situation.
PREDICTION: Our Seton Hall Pirates make it to the Big East Championship Semi-Finals once again which then turns us into anywhere from a 6 to 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Once we are in the Big Dance, watch-out as we will be dangerously carried by our overall team experience, senior leadership and desire to finish what was started last season.
ADDENDUM: Sophomore F Tray Jackson is NOT eligible to play this season as he sits out the year due to his transfer from Missouri. As Takal Molson before him last season, he will be able to practice with the team as he sits the year out.
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