Myles Powell and Quincy McKnight walked off the court with a towel draped over their heads. Jared Rhoden followed with his hands on his head in a state of disbelief, while Sandro Mamukelashvili draped his arm around Director of Basketball Operations Kyle Smyth.
There’s nothing quite like an NCAA Tournament loss. All season, players and coaches work countless hours to perfect their craft, build a worthy resume and win enough games to qualify for college basketball’s ultimate postseason tournament. In the blink of an eye, all the jubilation that goes along with an NCAA Tournament appearance turns to anguish, as any hopes of a run to hoist the National Championship trophy in April are ripped away.
That is Seton Hall’s reality following an 84-68 loss at the hands of seventh-seeded Wofford last Thursday night. The Pirates fought hard down the stretch of the regular season and throughout the Big East Tournament make their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, yet their season will end in disappointment and a feeling of what could have been.
It’s going to take a while, but eventually, the pain of the loss will wear off and it will be back to business as usual. Once that happens, the Pirates will come to a realization that is bound to make them smile and will put the defeat behind them for good.
The 2018-19 season laid the groundwork for what is to come. There’s no denying that Seton Hall overachieved this season. This is a team that had to replace four senior starters and three 1,000-point scorers, all while learning how to play with each other. Myles Powell was tasked with taking on a newfound leadership role both on and off the court. Both Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili found themselves in starting roles for the first time in their collegiate careers, while it was left to Quincy McKnight to pick up where Khadeen Carrington left off at point guard.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone picking Seton Hall to make it back to the NCAA Tournament at the beginning of the season. Seton Hall was picked to finish in the bottom third of the Big East and at best, the young and inexperienced Pirates would find a way to win enough games to make it to the NIT.
How did Seton Hall respond? By going out and making it known that this was a hard-nosed group that was not afraid of anyone. Wins over Kentucky and Maryland ensued and while things got rocky for the Pirates numerous times throughout the year, they stayed the course, won key games against Marquette and Villanova at the end of conference play, and made a memorable run to the Big East Championship game.
All of these accomplishments are something Seton Hall can take pride in. Did the Pirates accomplish their goal of making noise in the NCAA Tournament? No. But for a team that was never supposed to be in the tournament in the first place, they sure did a good job of establishing themselves as a dangerous squad.
“This was supposed to be a rebuilding year and we were supposed to be a team that was going to get into the NIT,” Myles Powell said. “So, for us to play three tough games in the Big East, one of the toughest conferences in the country, and come out here and face a very good Wofford team, I mean I’m proud of my guys.
“I mean, we could start from the point of expectations people had for this team,” Michael Nzei said following his final game as a Pirate. “Everyone thought it was a group of young guys, but these young guys showed they got heart and showed they could fight.”
There will be no talk of rebuilding in South Orange next season. Seton Hall returns four starters in Powell, Cale, Mamukelashvili and McKnight. Key reserves Anthony Nelson, Jared Rhoden and Romaro Gill will also return. Factor in the additions of Florida State transfer Ike Obiagu, Top-100 recruit Tyrese Samuel and three-star New York City guard Dashawn Davis, and you have the makings of a team that will be in a position to do some serious damage.
It took head coach Kevin Willard a while to build to this point, but Seton Hall is in excellent hands moving forward. There is no longer any doubt about a disparity in talent in comparison to the rest of the Big East, or any doubt about the character of the team and their ability to play with anyone in the country. The pieces are in place for the Pirates to be a top team in the Big East and one that gets over the hump to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Now, it’s all about maximizing potential and completing the puzzle.
“I look at them and I know the ceiling is so high,” Nzei said. “I feel like this year for them was just a building year and a learning year. As time goes for next year, I believe a lot of the potential is going to come out fully and I feel like from this point, you’re going to see a team of mature guys. I believe they’re going to keep fighting as time goes on.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.