After the program’s fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance last season, Seton Hall could have lost its coach and its best player during the offseason.
Kevin Willard was courted by Virginia Tech to replace the departed Buzz Williams, while Myles Powell tested the NBA Draft process. By early April, Willard had decided to stay at Seton Hall, reportedly receiving an extension in the process. By late May, Powell had opted to return as well.
With Powell’s return, Seton Hall is well positioned to return to the NCAA Tournament yet again — but advancing past the first weekend, something the Pirates have failed to do in Willard’s tenure, is now the goal.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Kevin Willard
2018-19 RECORD (BIG EAST): 20-14 (9-9)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Wofford 84-68 in the first round
F Michael Nzei (9.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
After sitting out last year following his transfer from Florida State, 7'1", 255-pound shot-blocking specialist Ike Obiagu will debut at the center position and should cause headaches for opposing offenses. Obiagu averaged 2.1 blocks along with 2.3 points and 2.6 rebounds two years ago with the Seminoles.
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“He just gives us a legitimate inside presence,” Willard says. “We got hurt [in that area] last year, and that’s just not going to happen this year.”
Seton Hall has several other big men back on the front line — 6'10" junior Sandro Mamukelashvili, 6'11" Taurean Thompson and 7'2" Romaro Gill. Mamukelashvili, who could flirt with averaging a double-double, is the most skilled of the big men. Thompson averaged only 4.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in his first season after transferring from Syracuse. Gill’s playing time could take a hit with Obiagu’s arrival.
Incoming freshman Tyrese Samuel averaged 9.1 points and 6.4 rebounds with the Canadian U19 team at the FIBA U19 World Cup.
Powell averaged 23.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season. He went off for 40 points against Grand Canyon and had outings of 35 against Georgetown and 34 against Marquette. Still, NBA folks want to see him operate more as a facilitator, so it will be interesting to see how much Willard puts the ball in his hands.
“I think the biggest thing he has to show is a little bit more consistency with his decision making,” Willard says. “I think that’s the one feedback that we got, probably more than anything, is that everybody knows he can shoot it and score, but he’s got to be able to make consistently good decisions, which he’s capable of doing, and I think he will.”
Senior Quincy McKnight and sophomore Anthony Nelson are both capable ball handlers who will give Willard the ability to play different combinations on the perimeter. McKnight led the team with 3.9 assists per game and was the third-leading scorer at 9.4 per game.
“I think we are going to be able to mix and match,” Willard says.
On the wing, junior Myles Cale should take another major jump after averaging 10.2 points per game and shooting 37.8 percent from 3 as a sophomore. Jared Rhoden is capable of a breakout as a sophomore; he averaged 3.4 points in 13.1 minutes per game a year ago.
Once again, Seton Hall will play a loaded non-conference schedule, which could help boost its NCAA résumé. The Pirates will host Michigan State, a preseason top-five team, and Maryland, and they also figure to play several top-20 teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis holiday tournament.
“I think everybody starts talking about quadrant 1 wins and losses and how many quadrants did you play,” Willard said a year ago of his scheduling philosophy, “I think you still gotta show that you’re willing to go out and challenge yourself and play other really good teams.”
The key for the Pirates this year will be building up enough quality wins — both in and out of the Big East — to improve their seed for the NCAA Tournament. That, in turn, could lead to a deep run in March.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
Big East Prediction: 2nd