Ismael Sanogo was the first commitment in Seton Hall’s esteemed 2014 recruiting class. He was also the most over-looked. With Isaiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado all getting big-time minutes as freshmen, Sanogo was primarily a bench player. He only saw 5.3 minutes per game last year. Now, with Brandon Mobley, Haralds Karlis and Stephane Manga having graduated, head coach Kevin Willard is calling on the former Newark East Side star. “Ish” has started 14 of 16 games this season. His offensive numbers are modest – five points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists – but Sanogo leaves the
scoring to his classmates. Instead, he hangs his hat on defense. “He’s going to try to become the best defender in the Big East, Willard said back in November, per Jeremy Schneider of NJ.com. “The way he’s gone about it so far, he’s on a good pace to do it. He’s guarding guards, he’s switching off, he’s covering for people. He’s really bought into the mentality of what he’s going to be and what value he is, and that’s one of the best defenders.” If Whitehead, Carrington, Rodriguez and Delgado were weapons of war, Sanogo would be a shield. Since the beginning of the season, Willard has unleashed the 6-foot-7-inch swingman on the opponent’s most dangerous threat. And each time, the shield has held strong. On Dec. 30, Sanogo locked down potential NBA lottery pick Henry Ellenson to 3-of-14 shooting for 13 points. Despite a considerable size advantage, the 6-foot-10-inch Ellenson struggled mightily against the length and quickness of Sanogo. Seton Hall won, 83-63.
Nearly three weeks later, Sanogo faced another goliath test: Providence’s Ben Bentil, the leading scorer in the Big East. Bentil finished with a team-high 21 points, but did so on 4-of- 15 shooting from the field and 1-of-5 from distance. The forward nailed 12-of-13 free throws and led Providence in a losing effort as fellow star Kris Dunn fouled out midway through the second half. “It always came natural to me,” Sanogo said of his ability to defend, per Schneider. “When I was younger, just moving my feet and being able to think like a guard. My long arms help, and I’m very quick laterally. So those help out a lot.”
The Pirates went on to beat the No. 12-ranked Friars, 81-72, in what was the Hall’s biggest game of the season. According to Basketball Ref- erence, Sanogo’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus (an estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed) is a colossal 7.5 heading into Wednesday night’s game with Villanova. By comparison, SHU’s No. 2 player in the category is Rodriguez with a 3.1 mark. Sanogo is statistically more than twice as valuable as SHU’s next-best defender. As the team strives to keep fighting in the dog-eat-dog Big East, Sanogo will be just as important as his high-scoring fellow sophomores. Tom Duffy can be reached at Thomas.email@example.com or on Twitter @TJDHoops.