For Anthony Nelson and Jared Rhoden, there is no room for a “sophomore slump” heading into this season. Seton Hall is no longer the underdog team from last year; they are the early front-runners to win the Big East and potentially claim a Big East championship title that just alluded their grasp in last year’s final. For the Pirates to reach that pinnacle again, however, Rhoden and Nelson will have to build upon their momentums from freshman year to improve their productivity on the court.
Rhoden has started the season strong, hitting double digits in points in the Pirates’ opening two games of the season against Wagner and Stony Brook, a feat he only managed once throughout all of last year. With seven rebounds in those two games, Rhoden is becoming much more proficient at reading where and when to be to claim the ball off the glass. While Ike Obiagu and Romaro Gill will likely deputize the defensive boards, Rhoden’s presence will be pivotal to the high-octane press that Kevin Willard has instilled in his team.
“A lot of the nerves are out by now,” Rhoden said. “I’d say [having played] in an NCAA tournament and a Big East Championship, it doesn’t get much bigger than that. For these games, I’m just going to hold my head up high and not think about it too much. I think last year as a freshman, it was kind of hard coming out of high school and learning a lot of new things. This year, I’m a lot more confident with the defense and offense the coach wants to run, and I think I’ll adjust pretty well.”
Likewise, Nelson is also coming into the new season with a newfound level of confidence. Despite averaging just 10.5 minutes per game last year, only Powell and Quincy McKnight provided more than his 62 assists for the Pirates. Nelson’s hope for this season is to provide a more direct offensive threat by improving his shooting from open space and off the dribble.
“This summer, [Powell] was the main person I watched,” Nelson said. “The way he carries himself in the gym, off the court and definitely the way he shoots the ball. In shooting drills, I’m always competing with him just to get my shot better.”
With Powell undoubtedly the main source of offense for the Pirates this year, Nelson’s commitment to improving that department of his game could prove crucial in the long run of this season.
With a year of collegiate basketball under their belts and the introduction of freshman Tyrese Samuel to the squad, Nelson and Rhoden have begun to develop their own leadership skills through their new teammate. Though they are unable to provide the same star-player wisdom as Powell, the knowledge they gained form their tribulations of freshman year is still fresh in their minds.
“I always looked towards the older guys when I messed up last year,” Rhoden said. “I looked to Mike [Nzei] or Myles and asked ‘What did I do wrong?’ Tyrese gets that kind look at me like ‘Yo bro, what do I do?’ I just try to give him the tips on how to get by it, what coach prefers and what are the right things to do.”
Samuel has impressed in his first few minutes as a Seton Hall player, and the chemistry he forms with Nelson and Rhoden this season could potentially serve as the foundation the team is built upon after Powell’s exit.
For now, however, their roles are to take advantage of the minutes they are given. With Powell possibly missing Thursday night’s match against No. 3 Michigan State, either of the sophomores could potentially fill the void he will leave in the starting five. Despite going in as underdogs, it could be the platform either needs to challenge for a starting role this year.
“Last year we were voted eight, and we had that chip on our shoulder,” Rhoden said. “Now, we’re number one in the Big East. We’re just going to keep that mentality that we’re going to beat everybody by as much as possible. No matter who we’re player, whether it’s Wagner or Michigan State, we’re going to take it as seriously as we can.”
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.