Kevin Willard addresses media in press conference portion of Seton Hall media day, where No. 23 Pirates shared expectations and goals for coming season. (Photo by Seton Hall University Athletics)
By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)
SOUTH ORANGE, NJ -- There’s a bit of a different feeling in the air these days in South Orange. For the first time in a decade, the Seton Hall Pirates come into a season with legitimate expectations. Hot on the heels of two straight NCAA Tournament bids and boasting three seniors who have already scored over 1,000 career points, a large contingent of media gathered at Walsh Gymnasium for Seton Hall’s media day activities, myself included. Here are some thoughts:
1. In The Air Tonight
One thing I noticed about the atmosphere inside Walsh Gym- it was lighter than in years past. Now, of course, the players have a lot to do with that, what with the returning talent and seniority that the Pirates' core possesses breeding cofidence, but during stretching before an open practice session, the players were in great spirits, enjoying themselves while preparing to go to work. I'm not saying that Seton Hall isn't taking the expectations seriously, because they are, but the optimism bled over into how everyone acted in South Orange on Monday. It was nice to see that side of the team show itself.
2. Supporting Cast
While the senior class gets the attention, and rightfully so, the Pirates' surrounding cast of characters may have a big part in how far the team can go this year. Head Coach Kevin Willard talked about guys like Myles Powell, Jordan Walker, Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili and what they add to the core of seniors as reasons that he believes the team is deeper this year. Powell, for example, has worked on his defense and has his body trimmed down even further from the strides he made last year. Cale, despite only being back on the floor for a month after an injury, is feeling better physically and ready to contribute offensively. Walker, who seemed very much an embodiment of the optimism that I mentioned above when we talked to him, brings quickness and energy as a projected backup to Khadeen Carrington. All of these players will be important as they look to complement Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Carrington as well as Ish Sanogo. And then there's....
A lot of the players and media alike have been gushing about Mamukelashvili, the freshman forward from Georgia who has played in Italy and down at Monteverde Academy in Florida for former St. Patrick's head coach Kevin Boyle before coming to Seton Hall. Talking to him, he seems mature for his age, and talked about himself and his game without much hesitation. I asked him who he models his game after, and he mentioned current Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons and Euro legend/former Chicago Bull Toni Kukoc. Reports are that his skill set is tremendous, and he did confirm a love of passing the ball as one of the things he adds to the ballclub. There are natural comparisons to the last European forward to play for the Pirates in Patrik Auda, but Mamukelashvili is less of a physical presence and more skilled, not to mention a little taller and a better shooter than Auda was as a freshman.
Regardless, with all that his teammates and coaches have said about him, it's hard not to get excited to see how that translates onto the floor. His last name, by the way, is pronounced "mah-moo-kell-osh-VEE-lee."
4. Scrimmaging Around
Seton Hall has already had a scrimmage against Boston College, and while it was a closed-door scrimmage, the Pirates reportedly got off to a bit of a slow start, but picked things up as things went forward. Mamukelashvili and Sanogo both echoed those sentiments, with Sanogo, the anointed dean of all things Defense, saying that the team got better defensively overall as the scrimmage went along, but still has some work to do. The Pirates have two exhibition games on their schedule coming up, one on Thursday against La Salle; which is a charity game at Walsh Gym with proceeds going to aid hurricane relief efforts, and also one on Saturday against LIU Post. Fans anxious to see the Hall in action should attend one of those, particularly the one against La Salle, a fellow Division I team.
5. Staying Grounded
Kevin Willard said that he doesn't want to temper the expectations too much, but wants his team to keep working hard despite the excitement that fans are understandably feeling. That obviously falls on the head coach, but I would argue that this team is well-equipped to handle those pressures. A couple players said that while the write-ups and honors are nice, the team still feels like it has a lot to prove. That sounds a lot like the constant mentality of Angel Delgado, the team's best player and an All-American. Delgado is never satisfied, playing with a chip on his shoulder ever since he got to South Orange, and doesn't care an ounce about his own numbers as long as the team wins in the end.
Now that he and his classmates are seniors, in true positions of leadership, if the team follows through on that mentality held by Delgado, that they still have a lot to prove, I think the Pirates will fulfill those lofty expectations.
The season is just around the corner, and you can forgive Seton Hall fans for smiling just a little wider than before as the calendar turns to November. After talking to players and observing at media day, they certainly have reason to do so.