If you watched Seton Hall’s stretch run through the end of the regular season and the Big East Tournament, two players receiving major minutes may have come across as new faces. At VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday, the situation will be no different for Anthony Nelson and Jared Rhoden.
The two freshmen, who played together on the New York Lightning prior to Seton Hall and now room together at school, began to receive major minutes as the season progressed. Nelson’s major breakout came in the Big East Championship against Villanova, where he had 12 points and two assists in 17 minutes. Rhoden shined in the team’s regular-season finale against Villanova with 15 points. The duo’s successes did not come overnight, though. Transitioning into the Division I basketball world, especially in the Big East, is no easy task. Nelson and Rhoden had to take time to adjust before becoming impact players.
Now that the two are rolling, they provide an additional layer of depth for coach Kevin Willard and the Pirates. Nelson fits comfortably behind Quincy McKnight as an offensive option at the point, while Rhoden can slide into the wing or at the four as a versatile defender.
Willard has done his best to mold Nelson and Rhoden to be complete, effective players. The two did not see much time at the beginning of the season, with Nelson learning the system and Rhoden coming off shoulder surgery. With the time spent on the bench and at practice, Nelson and Rhoden were able to pick up tips from Willard and his staff on how to adjust to collegiate play and the pace as compared to high school.
“Patience is the number one thing for me,” Rhoden said of what he learned most from Willard and the team. “As a freshman, being all over the place, being so antsy and trying to figure everything out – being patient and having my ears always open, listening and watching everybody else, especially the older guys, that’s where I learned most of my stuff.”
The team’s veteran experience, albeit limited, has also helped the younger core out tremendously. McKnight sat out last year due to transfer rules, but with two seasons under his belt at Sacred Heart and a season practicing in South Orange, he was able to mentor Nelson to become a better all-around point guard. The two amicably work off each other, with McKnight sharing his defensive expertise and Nelson showing off his smooth-flowing offensive skill set.
“Just learning from the older guys,” Nelson said. “Practicing against Quincy every day, I’m taking stuff from him. I’m taking stuff from Myles [Powell] and Mike [Nzei] and trying to put it into my game.”
The overall vibe of the team has also contributed to the development of Nelson and Rhoden. Willard’s staff, including assistant Grant Billmeier, has helped instill the values of Seton Hall basketball into its newcomers, especially since the two will be playing a vital role for the team in years to come.
“Grant is our bulldog,” Willard said. “He gets everything done for us, he’s got the greatest attitude. He’s the ultimate worker. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around, and I think that the guys love the fact that he loves Seton Hall and he comes to work every day and gives it his all for these guys.”
It’s hard to not notice the “bulldog” tendencies in Nelson and Rhoden on the court. In the Marquette fiasco involving the Theo John push on Powell and subsequent ejection, in the Big East semifinal, things seemed to be calming down before Nelson got into the face of Sacar Anim, the player in Powell’s face all night. Although it was a small moment in a bigger scenario, it proved Nelson is ready to jump in defensive of his teammates, regardless of being a freshman.
“The [blueprint] of Seton Hall is a blue blood, hardworking family atmosphere on this campus,” Willard said. “What I wanted was hard working, tough, family guys. That’s kind of what we’ve gone after.”
The Marquette game, along with the entire Big East Tournament, helped Nelson and Rhoden immensely adjust to the big stage in preparation of the tournament. The Garden can pale in comparison to some of the March Madness scenes, but for a freshman, it was a unique experience in a deep run that will help down the stretch against Wofford and potentially beyond.
“The Big East Tournament was a big step builder for us and what we’re going to look forward to in the NCAA Tournament,” Rhoden said. “Playing day after day, preparing, finding a new team who we were going to play every day is pretty hard with scouts. Maintaining your body is one of the hardest things that I’ve found as a freshman. I’m just trying to stay healthy and keep my headstrong.”
With the way things ended, though, it becomes easy as a young player to want more.
“[The Big East Tournament] helped me a lot with my confidence,” Nelson said. “To this day, I just still wish that we could’ve come out with the win.”
Only time will tell how Willard utilizes his freshmen against Wofford. The quick, three-point shooting team will prove to be an interesting test for the Pirates, especially given the jitters that will come with players’ first NCAA Tournament game.
“It’s something I always looked forward to since I was a kid,” Rhoden said.
“I always see people play, always see the upsets, always followed it. It’s something I always dreamed about doing, so now that I actually have the opportunity, it’s amazing.”
Kevin Kopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KMKTNF.