Sandro Mamukelashvili was named Big East Co-Player of the Year alongside Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl on Wednesday.
Mamukelashvili became just the fourth Seton Hall player to receive the award after Myles Powell earned the honor at the end of last season. This is the first time in Big East history that the award has been split between three players.
Mamukelashvili received the award off the back of a regular season where he averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists across 25 games. He is also just one of two players to rank within the league’s top 15 players in all three categories in the conference and overall games played.
The senior forward found out about the honor over the phone and met the news with screams of disbelief and pure joy. Even after hanging up the phone, Mamukelashvili remained in utter disbelief over his accomplishment until the next day when head coach Kevin Willard congratulated his senior forward on the honor.
“I called my brother to tell him, and we were both in shock,” Mamukelashvili said. “It was just a wave of emotions that didn’t stop until the next day when I spoke to the coach. I didn’t sleep all night and was just wowed. Thank you to the Big East and everyone who helped me to get there. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life.”
It was undoubtedly a hard-earned and well-earned honor for the Georgian forward. Four years ago, Mamukelashvili arrived at Seton Hall as a three-star recruit and ranked at 199 nationally coming in from Montverde Academy in Florida. Gillespie, his fellow award recipient, was ranked just one spot below him at 200, and now they’ve established themselves as two of the best players in the Big East.
Every season up until this one, Mamukelashvili has consistently improved upon his well-rounded skill set and added to his arsenal of offensive qualities. From bench player to the face of the program, he has developed into one of the most versatile players across all of college basketball capable of taking over games with his scoring touch or creative passing. His performances for Seton Hall this season have also led to him being one of five finalists for this year’s Karl Malone Award for best power forward in college basketball and a candidate for the Haggerty Metropolitan Player of the Year Award.
Along with his per game stats and postseason Big East honors, he also boasts 12 games in which he’s scored 20 or more points this season and a pair of 30-point performances that came against Penn State and St. John’s. He was the first Seton Hall power forward to record multiple 30-point games since Arturas Karnisovas during the 1993-94 season. In February, he became the 45th Pirate to score 1,000 points in a Seton Hall jersey after scoring just 87 points during his freshman year and missing 10 games last season due to injury.
The hindsight of Mamukelashvili’s four-year college career allows for his incoming ratings to be deemed underrated, but his story is not just about him overcoming adversity. His journey to this point in his career is another test case for what is possible for players who find themselves in similar shoes to Mamukelashvili when he first stepped into college basketball.
“The message is to keep working hard, believe in God and believe in yourself,” Mamukelashvili said. “There were a lot of ups and downs and sometimes you just wanted to quit and find an easier way, but the biggest lesson of all is your comfort will kill you. I felt like I was uncomfortable a lot of times and I felt like I was challenged, and I just stepped up to the plate.”
The story of Mamukelashvili’s journey in the U.S. starts nearly a decade ago when he first arrived at Montverde Academy. Having played basketball in age groups above his own in Italy, he was looking to further remove himself from his comfort zone as he continued to chase his dream of playing college basketball.
Growing up watching college mixtapes and the annual March Madness games served as constant bits of inspiration for what Mamukelashvili wanted to do with himself growing up. He knew coming to the U.S. was the next step he needed to take to achieve his goal, and with the help of his older brother David and support of his parents, he finally did so and moved to Montverde.
“I left when I was 14 years old, and it was a big decision to let me go to a different country,” Mamukelashvili said. “I feel like as a mother and a father, you always want your kid with you so you can teach them stuff, but my parents knew what I wanted to do in life, and they trusted me. I called them probably everyday crying, telling them to take me back, but I was already there, and they told me once you start something, you have to finish it and do it to the best of your ability.”
Despite the homesickness and sad phone calls home on a near-daily occurrence, Mamukelashvili said he preserved through his mental and emotional hardships. The constant reassurance from his family that they were with him mentally and not physically constantly gave him the extra energy he needed to get through tough practices, games and days.
The ever-selfless Mamukelashvili was quick to deflect all credit to his teammates and coaches though as he reflected on his journey in the U.S. over the last few years.
“Some goals you set for life that you can’t achieve, but you fight for them and get close to them,” Mamukelashvili said. “One of my goals was to win Big East Player of the Year, and it felt so distant back in the day. Now, I had the opportunity to step into a leadership role with the help of coach Billmeier and coach Willard. Without them, I wouldn’t be getting this award.”
As he prepares to lead his team into their Big East Tournament clash with St. John’s on Thursday, Mamukelashvili understands his business at Seton Hall is not done yet. There’s still trophies to be won and banners to hang before he hangs up his jersey, and the newly crowned Big East Player of the Year knows nothing less than his best will give his team a fighting chance to finish the year with some silverware.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.