Compared to 2018-19, things are slightly different for Kevin Willard and his squad ahead of the new season.
Armed with Big East Preseason Player of the Year and Seton Hall’s first-ever Preseason All-American Selection Myles Powell, as well as a returning cast of players that will only get better with the additions of Ike Obiagu and Tyrese Samuel, Willard has plenty of intriguing tools to work with throughout the year. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Pirates came in at No. 12 in the nation in the Preseason Associated Press Poll and first in the Big East Coaches’ Poll.
It’s a stark difference from where the Pirates stood last year. Coming in unranked and in eighth in the Big East Coaches’ poll, there are no underdog stories to be had for Seton Hall now.
Despite high accolades heading into the season, the road is not much easier for the Pirates than it has been in the past. Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats nabbed the No. 10 ranking in the AP Poll, and fellow Big East member Xavier came in at No. 19. Further, across all the major conferences in the nation, the Big East came out on top as the top collective KenPom ranked conference.
“It’s a great challenge, and we really have a lot of work ahead of us,” Willard said last Thursday at Big East Media Day. “I think the league is as good as the league has been in a long time. Even when it was the old league. Top to bottom, the players that are here, the experience here, it’s an opportunity for the league to be good and an opportunity for us to be good.”
Still, Willard is overtly confident in his team and what it can do on the hardwood. Just two points away from a Big East championship last year, the Pirates will undoubtedly be ready to come out behind Powell and Willard to stake their claim.
The road to get there, though, will not be easy. In true Willard fashion, the team’s non-conference schedule has gotten even more difficult than last season – a testament for what the coach believes his team is capable of and what it needs to get ready for the grind of March.
“We have one of the best players in college basketball, one of the best players in Seton Hall basketball history returning,” Willard said. “And, you have a schedule where you have Maryland, who’s top-10, coming in, Michigan State, who’s maybe number one, coming in. Playing the Battle for Atlantis where you’re going to get Oregon, maybe Gonzaga. Not only do we have a great team coming back, we have a great player, but I think the schedule adds to that flavor.”
In these big games, Willard will rely heavily on Powell to will his team to victory. It is his team now, and coming off a 23.1 points per game season, the sky is the limit for the Trenton, N.J. native. Despite the additional hype surrounding him, Willard has seen the potential in Powell to grow to this point from the start, both on and off the court.
“I think the greatest thing about Myles Powell is that he is as humble today as when I recruited him in high school,” Willard said. “He’s someone that wants to make it, and every day he shows up and works hard. His attitude hasn’t changed. His demeanor hasn’t changed. He’s as good of a teammate today as he was as a freshman. I have no worries whatsoever. He’s very driven to make his ultimate goals and to make Seton Hall’s goals.”
After Powell, the lines of defense are deep for the Pirates, with all but Michael Nzei returning to the team after last season. With another year under his players’ belts, Willard needs the core around Powell to equally step up so that desired results are achieved.
“I think the great thing about this team, the different thing about this team, is we have to balance our classes,” Willard said. “The seniors are all excited about the year that we’re going to have. Our juniors, Myles Cale and Sandro [Mamukelashvili] had great years last year and understand that it’s now their turn to take another step. Our freshman, with Anthony Nelson and Jared Rhoden, I’m more excited about those two.
“They’ve taken the same jump that Myles Powell did when he was a freshman to his sophomore year. We have a great balance in our classes and everyone’s ready to take a big jump.”
Regardless of where the Pirates stand to begin the year, Willard understands that it means little more than semantics before the team steps on the court. The coach can be proud of his player for a variety of reasons and for a number of awards, but basketball comes down to a team effort, and Seton Hall is ready to stay tuned in on its goals.
“We’re very humble and very focused,” Willard said. “That’s our attitude and that’s the way we’re going to be. Days like this are great, and it’s great for Myles Powell, to me, this day is more about the recognition of the hard work that Myles Powell has put in.”
Kevin Kopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @KevinKopfHWH.