Always one to challenge his Seton Hall teams in non-conference play, Kevin Willard's latest schedule may just be strongest yet for a Pirate group adjusting to life without its senior core. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
Over the course of his first eight years at Seton Hall, Kevin Willard has evolved in many ways, one of which being his tendency to tackle adversity head on in the form of the non-conference schedules he and his staff have been charged with putting together since assuming the reins in South Orange prior to the 2010-11 season.
Willard's latest project, a 12-game slate in which the Pirates will face as many as seven teams whose 2017-18 campaigns ended in postseason appearances, fits right in with his desire to test his young pupils before the rigors of Big East Conference play take up the second half of the year. In fact, this particular ledger -- compiled in the wake of losing four-year stalwarts Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo to graduation in May -- may just be the stiffest test The Hall has yet faced under its current head coach's watchful eye, all things considered.
Beginning with a season-opening contest against Northeast Conference regular-season champion Wagner, and ending in a marquee high-major showdown with Maryland three days before Christmas, we now offer some insight on each of the teams lining up on the opposite end of the floor from the Pirates with some players and nuggets to watch for along the way, beginning with the November portion of the schedule:
Wagner: Tuesday, November 6 - Walsh Gymnasium
Twice in the past three years, the Seahawks have entered March as the favorites to represent the NEC in the NCAA Tournament. Twice in the past three years, the postseason dreams on Staten Island were instead relegated to the National Invitation Tournament as Wagner was not able to protect its home court against Fairleigh Dickinson or LIU Brooklyn with an automatic bid to the field of 68 hanging in the balance. Head coach Bashir Mason has his work cut out for him this season if he is to replicate last year's success, as he must replace both JoJo Cooper and Blake Francis, the two most integral pieces in the Seahawks' backcourt, and along with the returning Romone Saunders, two of the three leading scorers on Grymes Hill last season. Expect seniors Elijah Davis and Devin Liggeons to take on a greater role in the offense for Mason, whose defensive prowess will surely reveal itself as the season goes on. AJ Sumbry should reprise his role as Wagner's rim protector while Nigel Jackson continues to develop alongside him as he enters his sophomore season, and if freshman guard Jonathan Norfleet is as good as advertised, the Seahawks could prove to be a solid opening indictment for Seton Hall.
Did You Know? P.J. Carlesimo, considered by many as the greatest coach in Seton Hall history, first made a name for himself in the head coaching ranks at Wagner. In six years on Staten Island, Carlesimo led the Seahawks to a pair of NIT appearances before using the program as a springboard to his 12-year tenure at Seton Hall.
New Haven: Friday, November 9 - Walsh Gymnasium (exhibition)
The Chargers, members of the Northeast-10 Conference in Division II, are the rare in-season exhibition foe for the Pirates this season. Owner of a 17-10 record in 2017-18, New Haven will be reliant upon junior Elijah Bailey and redshirt sophomore Derrick Rowland to lead its backcourt. Forwards Mihailo Vasic and Kessly Felizor each shot better than 57 percent from the floor last season for a team that connected at a near-48 percent clip overall, and torched the nets from distance at a rate approaching 37 percent.
Nebraska: Wednesday, November 14 - Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Neb.
Seton Hall's opponent in the Gavitt Tip-Off Games is a 22-win Nebraska outfit that takes on a New York metro area team for the second year in a row, having lost to St. John's at Carnesecca Arena last November. A National Invitation Tournament participant last season, the Cornhuskers will seek to take the next step into the NCAA Tournament behind the return of each of the program's four leading scorers from last season, headlined by 6-foot-6 wing James Palmer, Jr. Head coach Tim Miles possesses a player who has significant experience against the Pirates, that being Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland, who enters his senior season hoping to build off averages of over twelve points and six rebounds per game. Point guard Glynn Watson averaged an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1 last season, and with Khadeen Carrington no longer around, will have the edge among floor generals in this matchup.
Saint Louis: Saturday, November 17 - Prudential Center
The front end of a two-year, home-and-home series will take place against a Billikens team viewed as a potential contender to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, as head coach Travis Ford has the program forwardly placed following a two-year rebuild after his arrival from Oklahoma State. After being limited to a seven-man rotation last year, Saint Louis has depth this season that arrives in graduate transfers Dion Wiley (Maryland) and Tramaine Isabell (Drexel) -- the latter a recruiting target of Seton Hall this offseason -- to augment the return of Javon Bess, who is also a high-major expatriate by way of Michigan State. A pair of promising sophomores in Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French are indicative of the Billikens' bright future, and Rutgers castoff D.J. Foreman is a serviceable reserve forward. In freshman Carte'Are Gordon, a burgeoning 6-foot-9 post presence, Saint Louis has its highest-rated recruit since Larry Hughes plied his wares in the Gateway City two decades ago before spending 14 years in the NBA.
Did You Know? Former Seton Hall forward Rashed Anthony transferred to Saint Louis as a graduate student prior to last season. In addition, after not playing a head coach with Rick Pitino ties in the non-conference season until last year, Kevin Willard has now scheduled one for the second year in a row, as Ford -- who played for Pitino at Kentucky from 1991 to 1994, follows Manhattan's Steve Masiello on the Pirates' schedule.
Thursday, November 22 - Sunday, November 25: Wooden Legacy, Fullerton, Calif.
Grand Canyon -- Seton Hall's first opponent in this eight-team tournament -- is a mid-major that could potentially be the next breakout star next March. Head coach Dan Majerle, best remembered from his NBA days with the Phoenix Suns, has quietly built the Antelopes into a deceptively strong outfit, one whose backbone this season will be 6-foot-10 Italian Alessandro Lever, the team's leading scorer last year. Oscar Frayer, a 6-foot-7 junior who shot over 36 percent from three-point range last season, joins Lever as one of Grand Canyon's primary options on offense. The Pirates will next face either Hawaii or Utah in the second day of the Thanksgiving weekend event, and should they take on the Warriors for the second time in three seasons, Seton Hall will need to contend with senior guard Sheriff Drammeh, the leading cog in the Aloha State machine. If Utah, last year's NIT runner-up, is the opponent for The Hall, the Utes have a roster that can give the Pirates fits even without now-graduated point guard Justin Bibbins. SMU transfer Sedrick Barefield is the leader of an up-and-coming squad that will look to Detroit native Donnie Tillman to step up as a sophomore after functioning well as a freshman sixth man a year ago. On the other side of the bracket, Miami would be the most likely opponent for the Pirates should both teams handle their early-round business accordingly, and the Hurricanes possess a matchup problem in junior sharpshooter D.J. Vasiljevic. With Angel Delgado gone, 6-foot-11 junior Dewan Huell will be an equally imposing riddle for Seton Hall to solve, as will Mount St. Mary's transfer Miles Wilson. As far as the other potential opponents, La Salle -- an exhibition foe of The Hall last season -- will be retooling, yet has a pair of gifted guards in senior Pookie Powell and redshirt junior Traci Carter, who is eligible after transferring from Marquette. Northwestern will be an imposing matchup due to the senior leadership of Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, while Fresno State will go as far as senior Deshon Taylor, a 17-point scorer on average last year, takes them.