Sanogo’s return to starting lineup reignites defense

After watching his team give up 54 first-half points to Rhode Island in the NIT Season Tip-Off on Thanksgiving night, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard knew something had to change defensively.

Willard went back to his old ways to solve his team’s defensive woes.

Photo via Sarah Yenesel/Assistant Photography Editor

Ismael Sanogo, the senior forward, played scarcely as a freshman, appearing in 18 games and making just one start. However, in his sophomore and junior seasons, Sanogo started 50 of the 61 games that he played in, establishing himself as a glue guy and arguably the team’s most valuable player on the defensive end in the process.

Despite his defensive prowess over the two previous seasons, Sanogo was forced out of the starting lineup for the first five games of the season thanks to a strong offseason by redshirt junior forward Michael Nzei. While Nzei brings an advanced offensive skill set compared to Sanogo to the table, Sanogo is the more experienced defender and compliments Angel Delgado better than Nzei on that end of the floor, leading to his return to the starting lineup against Vanderbilt in the third-place game of the NIT Tip-Off.

“Mike [Nzei]’s been playing great, but I just felt like that first unit needed more of a defensive spark,” Willard said after the team’s 72-59 victory over Vanderbilt in the third-place game of the NIT Tip-Off on Nov. 24. “Mike covers Angel [Delgado] offensively, but I felt as the games go on, we needed to cover him defensively and Ish does the best job of that.”

Upon returning to the starting lineup against the Commodores, Sanogo made an instant impact, blocking two Vanderbilt shots in the first five minutes of the game. He went on to block four shots on the night while corralling eight rebounds.

Starting Sanogo added a heightened defensive intensity for Seton Hall, as the Pirates turned in a lockdown defensive performance in which Vanderbilt struggled throughout the night. The Commodores shot 33.9 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from beyond the arc, while turning the ball over 16 times and even going scoreless for 11 minutes at one point.

“I just wanted to be the aggressor on defense and not let the other team run what they’re doing,” Sanogo said. “From what it looks like based on the results of the game, it worked.”

With Sanogo out of the starting lineup against Rhode Island, the Rams shot 60 percent from the field in the first half and 52 percent from three on the night, the exact opposite of what Vanderbilt was able to do against Seton Hall’s defense.

“We lost that game in the first half,” Willard said. “I don’t think we have ever given up 54 points as a team in a half. If we come out with good defensive intensity, if it’s 45-45 at the half, you’re giving yourself a much better chance to win the game.”

Sanogo saw increased minutes in the second half against Rhode Island and not coincidentally, the Rams managed to score only 21 second-half points. That second half against Rhode Island was the beginning of the tide turning on the defensive end for Seton Hall and a lot of it had to do with Sanogo being on the court and active on defense.

Sanogo embodies the qualities of a defensive stopper – a high-intensity, tough, lengthy player who cares more about locking down the other team’s best players than putting up points on offense. He is what this Seton Hall team needs moving forward, as defense is what ultimately wins championships.

After the loss to Rhode Island, Willard voiced his concerns about the team’s defensive intensity, but seemed unsure of what he could do on his end to change things.

“It’s just more of a defensive mentality, a little more of an intensity,” Willard said. “We were really flat defensively for some reason defensively in the first half. I just can’t figure it out.”

While the defense may need some tweaking down the road, for now it was a quick fix thanks to Sanogo.

Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at tyler.calvaruso@student.shu.edu or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.