The Last Dance
After the pandemic-shortened season—and the losses of Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight and Romaro Gill to graduation—Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili and Shavar Reynolds Jr. returned to South Orange for potentially one last go at the Big East title with Seton Hall during this unprecedented time in sports.
Mamukelashvili’s decision to return instead of entering the NBA Draft was a massive boost for Kevin Willard’s team this summer. No returning player averaged more minutes (26.2) or points (11.9) per game than the Georgian last season, and he was arguably Seton Hall’s most valuable player outside of Powell.
Last season was a bump in the road for Cale after practically being untouchable in the starting five during the 2018-19 season. Maybe it was the intensified defense against him or the Pirates playing even more through Powell, but the hope is that Cale can shake off last year’s shortcomings and recover his sophomore year form.
Reynolds Jr. performed admirably and efficiently off the bench last season, proving to be one of the top sixth men in the conference. His injection of energy on defense will be instrumental to keeping a younger Pirates team on their toes in transition and during lineup changes.
Another player who probably felt hard done by the cancelation of last season was Jared Rhoden. He had a breakout season for the Pirates and underwent a maturation period when Powell had dry spouts and Mamukelashvili missed games due to injury midway through conference play. He showed versatility in his consistency to drive at the net, hit a jumper from close range and sink three-pointers when he gets open looks.
Rhoden caught many off guard with how well he won rebounds on either side of the court last season as well. It’s a testament to his positional understanding and ability to read the ball’s bounce as he isn’t usually the tallest player on the court, and it also highlights the grit and determination he played with to earn and stay in a starting role for the Pirates. He actually led the team in total rebounds (193) and rebounds per game (6.4) ahead of both Mamukelashvili – though he played 10 less games – and Romaro Gill last season.
However, the increased attention he will receive from the opposition’s defenders will be like the challenge Cale faced this past season. It’ll be interesting to see how he continues to perform on either side as a marked man.
Pair of Transfers
Bryce Aiken’s transfer to Seton Hall was a homecoming for the New Jersey native after the initial announcement was made back in April. He had a strong career at Harvard, averaging 16.8 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists over 65 career games, and the hope is that the guard will bring the same dynamism he showed in the Ivy League to the Big East. He also adds a seasoned, winning mentality to the Pirates, having won back-to-back Ivy League titles in 2018 and 2019, which will bode well for the malleable minds of Seton Hall’s three incoming freshmen.
Sophomore forward Tray Jackson also transferred to Seton Hall in April after a relatively underwhelming freshman year at Missouri. Jackson was heavily recruited by the Pirates while he was still in high school and he joins the team with a reputation for being an efficient finisher when driving to the net. He fits the hardworking, gritty player that Willard loves to coach and will likely be an impact substitute off the bench for most of this season.
More to Come
Pirate fans got their first taste of Tyrese Samuel last season with the Canadian power forward surprising some with his confidence to shoot from three often. Given his size and athleticism, the Pirates will want him to get more involved in the paint and getting stuck into the thick of things to open space for Rhoden and Cale from wider positions. His relative efficiency from beyond the arc is encouraging for Willard, though, should he ever want to experiment with a tall lineup that includes Samuel, Mamukelashvili and Ike Obiagu on the court.
Speaking of Obiagu, there’s more to come from the fan-favorite center this year now that Gill is out of the picture. His ability to read and win rebounds left more to be desired given his size, but Obiagu’s ability to get a hand in to block shots put Pirate fans on their feet several times throughout the 2019-20 season. The center role is his to win permanently in his last two years at Seton Hall, and he’ll have to prove he can be a little smarter in the paint if he’s not to get beat out to the starting role by incoming freshman center Jeff Ngandu.
Back in Action
Though he’s been with the team for a year, Takal Molson will feel like a fresh face once the Pirates resume play having sat out of last season per NCAA transfer rules. Molson arrived at Seton Hall after a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year season where he averaged 16.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists at Canisius College (and the help of some McKnight highlight videos). Having missed out on an entire year of competitive college basketball, his role and impact for the Pirates will be an interesting development this season.
He’s going to face stiff competition from Reynolds, Rhoden, Cale and Aiken as well as hungry freshmen Dimingus Stevens and Jahari Long, and that should be key to keeping Molson and Willard’s contingent of guards fighting for their spots. He brings a similar determination as Rhoden to his game, and Molson’s general grittiness is reminiscent of Reynolds with more offensive presence. He’ll likely be a role player this season, and Willard will appreciate the wide skill set Molson offers to guard one through four when needed.
Dimingus Stevens, Jahari Long and Jeff Ngandu come into the Pirate team as one of the most well-rounded recruitment classes since the days of Isaiah Whitehead, Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington.
Stevens provides the Pirates with an energetic wide player with shades of Powell’s three-point shooting efficiency in his game. Most impressive is his ability to get shots off quickly, preventing defenders from getting in his face when he shoots from deep. While his energy is admirable, Willard will likely have to work on honing Stevens’ tenacity as it could lead to him overcommitting and fouling often on defense.
Long’s solid 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame along with his court IQ and ability to run plays will scare a lot of Big East teams down the road. He brings a competitive, energetic personality on either side of the court as well which will bode well in his pursuit to climb the pecking order on Willard’s roster.
Ngandu rounded out the Pirates’ 2020 recruitment class when he committed to the team back in May, and he’ll hopefully provide Obiagu with competition for the center role. Given the position’s lack of depth, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Ngandu might see the most time on the court of all the incoming freshmen.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.