The Seton Hall men’s basketball season has been largely about the team’s four seniors, but those seniors have had a job beyond winning this season: tutoring the next generation.
Sandro Mamukelashvili is part of the triumvirate that came to Seton Hall this fall, thought of as part of the answer to fill the void that the seniors will leave behind. Whether one, two or more games remain for the players that have 0, 14, 20 and 31 on their jerseys, Mamukelashvili’s moment comes closer with each passing game.
It has not come this season, though, with Angel Delgado and his 71-career double-doubles still, unsurprisingly, the go-to option for Seton Hall when a crucial layup or rebound is needed in and around the paint. As a freshman, Mamukelashvili came in expecting big things, but he quickly learned that the season would be as much about the information he soaked in as the numbers he put up on the stat sheet.
“I think this year was more like an experience year, a learning year, and I think next year I will be ready to come and dominate this league,” said Mamukelashvili.
“We have great seniors, so, I’m learning this year, and I know next year I will come back stronger, because of playing with Angel, Khadeen [Carrington], Desi [Rodriguez] and Ish [Sanogo]. Ish is a really good help, just spending time playing defense; always explaining stuff.”
Sanogo became Mamukelashvili’s defensive tutor this season, giving him unlimited office hours throughout the fall and winter so that the 6-foot, 10-inch forward from Tbilisi, Georgia could adopt some of the skills that made Sanogo one of the most renowned defenders in the country.
“I just showed him cheat codes to defense,” Sanogo said. “If you’re not the most athletic guy, you can cheat by being in the right position early. And I showed him how to be in the right position early, and how much one little adjustment can make a huge difference.”
Before any of the gaudy offensive numbers can come on a consistent basis, Mamukelashvili needs to overcome some of the hurdles of competing game-in and game-out at the highest level of college basketball. Defense has been one of those aspects to master, but there have been several others.
“Defense, speed of the game, just how everybody is good; there is not a player who is not good,” Mamukelashvili said. “In high school, there are some players that are good, but not that good. But here, everybody has game. If you come and look at him and say ‘Oh, look, he can’t run,’ he might score 30 on you. So, you better always be ready.”
Mamukelashvili came into the season with fans eager to see what he could produce. He may have been similar in stature to his teammates and opponents, but the freshman still had all of these lessons and more to learn.
“I think, this year I had some struggles at the beginning of the season because, sometimes I was nervous,” Mamukelashvili said. “I think my biggest lesson was to just believe in myself and just, go, go, go with the flow; just play my heart out every day.”
Against Xavier, Mamukelashvili did just that, brightening up the Pirates’ spirits when they seemed down and out at the Cintas Center on Feb. 14. What was as much as a 25-point deficit was trimmed down all the way to six, thanks in part to a 17-point, seven-rebound game from Mamukelashvili.
Down the stretch, he was rewarded with increased time on the court as his minutes per game spiked from 5.7 in the first 15 conference games, to 12.5 in the last six, including the Big East Tournament quarterfinal.
However, despite the uptick in court time, Mamukelashvili is still learning, and this all-important week will teach the freshman lessons that he can carry on for when the weight of the team’s success rests more heavily on his shoulders. For now, though, Mamukelashvili is as hungry to taste victory against North Carolina State on Thursday as his upperclassmen teammates, who have taught him so much, but are 0-for-2 in the Big Dance.
After hearing countless times about how satisfying successes of years gone by were, Mamukelashvili could be with them for their first taste at tournament triumph, and he knows it.
“For the seniors it means a lot, because it’s their last run, dancing the last time,” Mamukelashvili said. “So, I know it means a lot for them, and everything that means a lot for my teammates means a lot for me. So, I’m just going to do my best to go out there and find a way to win.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.