Seton Hall is primed for big season, but all eyes are centered on Khadeen Carrington and his ability to handle point guard responsibilities for Pirates. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)
Our series of questions surrounding the four teams that will make up the majority of our coverage this season began moments ago, when we shed some light on the concerns surrounding St. John's and their quest to accelerate the rebuild under Chris Mullin. Next up is a trip across the Hudson River, where a potential champion takes flight for the first time this season when Seton Hall welcomes Fairleigh Dickinson to the Prudential Center Friday:
1) Just how well will Khadeen Carrington handle being the primary point guard?
If his experience on the ball last year is any indication, his transition should be smooth and seamless. Already adept at running the floor in situations where Isaiah Whitehead or Madison Jones was not on the court for the Pirates in each of the past three years, the former Bishop Loughlin standout has passed his two preliminary tests in getting his teammates involved, registering seven assists against one turnover over the two exhibition games Seton Hall played last week. In fact, the confidence placed in Carrington is so rich that his coach is not as concerned with any potential adversity, even if he did mention the need to get his supporting cast into the offense, as he is with understanding all the nuances of his senior guard's new role.
"He's played so much of it already," said Kevin Willard when discussing Carrington's progress. "He's had the ball in his hands so much over the last three years. He's done a really good job with the basketball stuff, which I had no worries about, but now I think we're going to switch our focus on him understanding the deeper zen of the role."
2) Who gets the start at forward alongside Angel Delgado?
Logic would dictate that Ismael Sanogo, who served as the starter for the majority of last season when he was healthy enough to play major minutes, would be the second man in the Pirate interior, especially for his renowned defensive skill set. However, Willard has been blessed with more depth than he has had in any of his previous seven seasons, and has taken advantage of that luxury in the exhibition season. Michael Nzei, who ultimately replaced Sanogo in the starting lineup down the stretch last season and got the nod in last Thursday's exhibition against La Salle, is the better offensive option, and backed up his stake in the starting job with 16 points and 12 rebounds last week. Freshman Sandro Mamukelashvili may not start right away, but has already proven to be an indispensable commodity.
"Our frontcourt is a lot of fun just because we can do a lot of different things from an offensive standpoint," Willard assessed. "Trying to get all these guys the right minutes is probably my biggest challenge."
3) Who off the bench stands to make the biggest impact?
This is where the massive depth comes in handy for Seton Hall, as the answer to this question can go a number of ways. One can say Sanogo for his lockdown defense if Nzei were to be the starter, or perhaps freshmen Jordan Walker and Myles Cale. Eron Gordon could even make his presence known at various points during the season, but we'll go ahead and say Mamukelashvili will be the X-factor for the Pirates among the reserves. Take one look at the 6-foot-10 Georgian, and it is hard to believe he has only spent two years in the United States. The long freshman is ahead of his tender age in basketball IQ and player development, and has already developed a cult following among the Seton Hall fan base.
"I love playing the point forward, like Ben Simmons," the admittedly selfless Mamukelashvili said, referencing the Philadelphia 76ers phenom and fellow Montverde Academy product. "Coming in as a freshman, I've learned a lot from Angel and from the other guys. I learned how to play defense better from Coach Willard. I think I have a good skill set for a big guy, but I can never be satisfied with what I have."
4) Which games in the non-conference schedule are of particular interest?
Wednesday, November 15 vs. Indiana: The Hoosiers are retooling this year in a loaded Big Ten, but Archie Miller's debut in Bloomington brings an added dimension to a tasty Gavitt Games matchup in Newark, one where the Pirates will look to score a significant win in a sturdy non-conference slate.
Thursday, November 23 vs. Rhode Island: Dan Hurley finally squares off against his alma mater when he brings a potential Top 25 Rams outfit into Barclays Center to meet Seton Hall in the NIT Preseason Tip-Off. Carrington and E.C. Matthews will be a fun battle to watch on Thanksgiving night.
Sunday, December 3 at Louisville: One of two road games before Big East play comes against a Cardinals team that is still nationally ranked following the FBI investigation that cost Rick Pitino his job. Deng Adel will be one of many weapons that Willard will need to adequately prepare for.
Saturday, December 16 at Rutgers: Now in his second season on the banks, Steve Pikiell has already caused some of the more rabid members of Seton Hall's fan base to agonize over this year's Garden State Hardwood Classic after valiantly taking the Pirates to the wire in Newark last season. The RAC will likely be close to a capacity crowd for this affair, and if Corey Sanders and Mike Williams can hold their own in the backcourt, and if Deshawn Freeman is able to survive a war with Delgado in the paint, the Scarlet Knights may emerge victorious. However, Seton Hall's depth and experience should win out.
5) Ultimately, what is the ceiling going into the NCAA Tournament?
If Willard's gauntlet of a non-conference schedule is handled appropriately, Seton Hall could easily be 12-1 going into their league opener on December 28 against Creighton. Picked second in the conference, the Pirates should have an inside track for a No. 5 or 6 seed in the brackets, maybe even lower. As the regular season runner-up last year, Butler secured a No. 4 seed in nearby Milwaukee, using their victories over Arizona, Cincinnati and Indiana; coupled with a sweep of Villanova, to their advantage in a schedule that was not as imposing as the ledger Willard has prepared for his team. Assuming Seton Hall does not suffer any significant hiccups, a trip to Pittsburgh; the closest opening weekend host site to South Orange, is in order.
Prediction: 26-5, 14-4 Big East