Myles Powell was all smiles Thursday as he was voted Big East Preseason Player of the Year shortly after his Seton Hall team topped conference's preseason poll. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)
NEW YORK -- It seems like only yesterday that Kevin Willard was introduced as the head coach at Seton Hall in 2010.
Hot on the heels of replacing Bobby Gonzalez, Willard was tasked with returning the Pirates to prominence in the Big East Conference.
Heading into 2019-20, his tenth season in South Orange, the fruits of his labor appear to have come in. At the Big East's annual media day Thursday at Madison Square Garden, Seton Hall was picked to win the conference title by the league's coaches for the first time since 2000, getting half of the first-place votes and edging out perennial favorite Villanova. Superstar guard Myles Powell was also named the conference's Preseason Player of the Year. It is the first time the Pirates have swept the top honors in the preseason poll since 1992, and expectations are officially high in South Orange this winter.
Here are four thoughts from the World's Most Famous Arena:
With the expectations now placed upon both him and the team, I asked Powell how they would handle them, and he was quick to point out that the rigors of the Big East haven't changed despite the higher prognosis.
"We're taking it like we did last year," he said. "I'm telling these guys that the preseason (poll) doesn't mean anything. Last year, we were (picked) eighth. This year, we have the target on our back, and we're going to get everyone's best game. Last year, the conference was decided by one or two games, so we've got to be ready for the battles."
It's easy to get caught up in the immediate future for Powell and the Pirates, but there have also been moments that have brought the journey over the last four years full circle for the Trenton native, such as when he spotted himself on a highway billboard recently, and pulled over to snap a picture for Instagram.
"That's a dream come true," Powell said. "Especially coming from where I come from. When you're driving around, you always see billboards, and that one kind of caught me off guard. When I saw it, I kind of got teary-eyed, with where I come from, just being a kid from Trenton and to come out and do all this, playing with the players I played with, and for me to be the one who's up on the billboard, that means so much to me."
So, what can we expect for an encore? Powell says a more complete performance.
"Being a leader and making plays for my teammates," he said. "I learned so much playing for the USA in the Pan-Am Games this summer that you don't have to just score the ball to be effective on the court. I can go out and score 35 points, but everyone knows I can do that. If I go out and score 12-13 points, but with nine assists and a couple rebounds and we're winning, that means more to me than just going out and doing what everyone knows I can do."
Considering the maturation of the supporting cast around Powell, that could definitely take place this year. Speaking of which...
2. Sandro Slides Over
The best basketball teams tend to have a balance between inside and outside play. Terry Dehere had Jerry Walker and Anthony Avent. Shaheen Holloway had Samuel Dalembert. Isaiah Whitehead and Khadeen Carrington (and, to a lesser extent, Powell) had Angel Delgado.
Sandro Mamukelashvili could turn into that compliment to Powell this year. Averaging nearly double figures in scoring and rebounding last season while also having to bang with players who edged him out in overall size, Mamu now gets a chance to move back to his natural power forward position, which could allow him to show off more of the stretch-four style game that he was known for. That, in turn, could boost his confidence level, which he admitted would wane at times last year.
"I'm a lot more comfortable right now because Coach is telling me I'm going to have a big year," Mamukelashvili said. "He gives me more confidence, my teammates are giving me more confidence, telling me to keep shooting the ball and not think about my mistakes. I feel like I've grown up mentally. I was getting down on myself (last year), but now I feel more comfortable on the court. I feel like having that trust from my teammates and coaches, and playing my normal position, will give me a boost this year."
Confidence breeds consistency, and with not one, but two shot-blocking presences occupying the paint this year alongside Mamukelashvili in Florida State transfer Ike Obiagu and returning senior Romaro Gill, consistent play from the versatile Mamu would make Seton Hall a very dangerous team.
3. Willard's Bond
The bond between Kevin Willard and his star player is one that feels uncommon, even given that there are lots of coach-player relationships that stand the test of time. When Powell was going through the process of testing the NBA Draft waters this summer, Willard dropped everything and flew out to California to attend his pro day. Both men acknowledged the impact that had on Powell today, and you don't do those types of things without a special connection.
"Every day in practice, he has a level of enthusiasm that's contagious," Willard said of Powell as a player. "You love coaching a kid that loves to be in the gym, you love to coach a kid that wants the big moment. As a person, we've been through a lot together. We've grown together, and I think that's why he is where he is, and that's why our program is where it is.
Powell expounded even more on his bond with his coach.
"I didn't think we could get any closer, but I was wrong," Powell said. "This summer, with helping me through the (NBA Draft) process, with him taking a month away from his family in Peru at the Pan-Am Games with me and Myles (Cale), along with other kids in the Big East, it just showed how much he really cares about the conference and the kids he's dealing with. Coach knows I have his back, and I know he has mine."
"I wouldn't be the Myles Powell I am today if it wasn't for Kevin Willard," he added. "None of this would be possible if it wasn't for him believing in the fat kid that was 250 pounds three years ago."
4. Don't Sleep On Shadeen
The Pirates' men's basketball team isn't the only program that had a spotlight on it today in New York City. Seton Hall women's basketball was picked third in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, and for the first time since 1988, the Pirates also had the Preseason Player of the Year in senior forward Shadeen Samuels.
Samuels led the Big East in scoring last year en route to being named the Most Improved Player in the league, and that gives Seton Hall both the men's and women's Preseason Players of the Year, a rare feat indeed and something that had not been accomplished in the Big East since 2003.
"I was so excited for her," head coach Tony Bozzella said. "She had to work for all of this, from averaging four points a game as a freshman and not playing in some games, then averaging seven-and-a-half points as a sophomore and going through a lot of ups and downs to where she is today. And she's not just a great offensive player, I think she's the best defensive player in the league, so for her to get the award shows that people have acknowledged how good she is. I give so much credit and the staff for working individually with her. It's easy to say, 'oh, just get better,' but she really has gotten better."
The Pirates as a program have made the postseason in five out of the last six years, building a foundation under the charismatic Bozzella that shows in the development of a player like Samuels, who was relatively unheralded out of high school. That type of development takes time and effort, and that's not lost on Powell.
"Whenever I go back to get extra shots or do something extra, I always see Shadeen right next to me," Powell said. "If it's me going to get extra treatment, or me staying in the weight room a little longer, I always see her. Just to have that in the Seton Hall family, that means a lot to the university. Props to her, too, because she deserves it."
The admiration of the two star players is also mutual between the two programs.
"I'm a big Myles Powell fan," Bozzella said. "I walked in the gym at a quarter to seven this morning and he's shooting. It's media day, he's got to get ready! And he's so respectful, he's such a nice young man. Kevin has not only recruited a bunch of great basketball players, but the kids are really great. They come to our games, our practice, they hold the door for me, they were respectful to my daughter when she was here, they're just a nice bunch of young men. I'm excited for them to do well this year."
Seton Hall men's basketball opens its season on November 5 on campus at Walsh Gymnasium against Wagner at 6:30 p.m., while the women open their campaign the following night at 7:00 against Sacred Heart. If all plays out according to the newfound preseason hype, this could be a winter to remember at The Hall.