After weeks of the college basketball season seeming more like a hopeful concept rather than a well-organized plan, Big East media day reconnected the world with the players and coaches, albeit this year through a screen.
For Seton Hall, that meant coach Kevin Willard, graduate-transfer Bryce Aiken and seniors Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili were back talking about the Pirates and basketball.
Willard spoke about the progression of his players over this preseason and the elephant in the room that was the COVID-19 pandemic, touching on schedule difficulties and discussing how the team has tended to the mental health needs of his players during a season riddled by pandemic-induced regulations. Aiken, Cale and Mamukelashvili all took questions from the press in separate Zoom call, expressing their excitement about the return of college basketball.
In a day stuffed with news and announcements, here are five key takeaways about the Pirates The Setonian took from Big East media day.
Expectations high for Jared Rhoden and Mamukelashvili
Mamukelashvili was the only Seton Hall player to earn preseason honors for the Pirates outside of Aiken’s honorable mention, and that comes as a sign of how important he is to this team.
Willard said their offense will run through Mamukelashvili high in the post, adding a different dimension to the Pirates’ front court that hasn’t necessarily been there in previous years.
The Georgian forward emerged as an instrumental piece to the Pirates’ success during Myles Powell’s stint out of the team due to injury. During that time, Willard felt Mamukelashvili was starting to show flashes of how dominant he can be in the Big East.
“I really thought toward the end of last year everyone started to see the player he was emerging to be,” Willard said.
Junior guard Jared Rhoden also found himself in the spotlight during Seton Hall’s quick start in conference play last season. The development in Rhoden’s defensive game was evident, and his knack for providing a consistent offensive presence in tight games will help push the Pirates over the line in another competitive season of Big East basketball.
“I think Jared Rhoden will be a first-team, second-team All-Big East player by the time it’s all said and done this year,” Willard said. “He’s had a tremendous summer.”
Aiken is slowly but surely coming back from injury
The arrival of the Harvard graduate-transfer has the potential to be one of the feel-good stories of the season, but that would require him to fully recover from his ankle injury. Aiken’s talent both on the ball and within his basketball IQ are clear, and he aims to put both on display sooner rather than later for the Pirates.
“I’m definitely planning on playing the first game of the season,” Aiken said. “Things are looking optimistic. I’ve been working on getting my strength back. The only thing I haven’t done is play five-on-five with the guys.”
Willard said he is excited to bring a player onto the court who sees the game like a coach but doesn’t expect or need Aiken to be a 30-point per game player. He’s also been impressed with the way Aiken has naturally become a mentor for some of the younger players on the team.
Even in his limited team practices running dummy offenses, Willard and Aiken’s teammates have all been pleased with additions he brings to the team’s offense. The point guard also looked confident when questioned about transitioning from the Ivy League to the Big East.
“Basketball is basketball,” Aiken said. “Everything else will take care of itself. The speed and tempo of the game will be different from what I’m accustomed to, but I’m sure I’ll be more than good.”
Willard concerned over COVID-19 protocols and player safety
The college basketball is scheduled to begin Nov. 25, but Willard made it clear that doesn’t mean it will come back without hiccups. Willard was a realist on the situation with every question, saying that he wished there was a better way for programs to carry on through positive tests that come up within their teams.
Though Seton Hall’s men’s basketball team has gone without a positive COVID-19 test since returning to campus in late July, Willard knows there are going to be difficulties in finishing a season without issues along the way.
“It’s probably going to be almost impossible,” Willard said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. If we’re going to test so much, why aren’t we using the tests to keep moving forward?”
Willard added that coaching from six feet apart and utilizing the entire Walsh Gymnasium to watch film have been two adjustments in the way he and his staff coach the team.
As was the case for most of the coaches and players in attendance for media day, Willard was also asked about the potential for a bubble system.
“I think a bubble is possible,” Willard said. “I think it’s probably more feasible toward the end of February when the other sports and students are back on campus.”
Still time to buy stock in Tyrese Samuel
Aiken, Cale, Mamukelashvili, Reynolds and Rhoden all got their rightful plaudits through questions and answers throughout the day, but Willard specifically earmarked Tyrese Samuel as another player to keep an eye out for this season for the Pirates.
“I expect him to make the same jump as Myles Powell did from freshman to sophomore year,” Willard said. “He’s going to be playing a lot more minutes and getting a lot more shots without Myles Powell. He could be a 10-and-10 guy because he’s starting to get confident in his game.”
Willard said Samuel’s ankle injury last season left them thin towards the end of conference play and that it played a big role in their slight decline in form. While comparing his potential jump in talent to that of Powell, Willard said that Samuel could be just as productive as Mamukelashvili was last year this season.
He added that Samuel has gotten stronger, too, which could bode well should the Canadian be utilized in between the five and four positions. Even if he isn’t the Pirates’ outright starter in either position, Samuel will provide Seton Hall with another depth piece to turn to should injuries or fatigue set in during the season.
A season to prove the doubters wrong
Seton Hall ranked fifth in the Coaches Poll, and it was a surprisingly low estimation of where the Pirates could finish even with the key pieces they lost. Aiken, Cale and Mamukelashvili all brushed off the insinuations of preseason rankings, though, backing the team’s quality and progression heading into the new season.
“I don’t think they really understand how much potential and talent we have on this team,” Mamukelashvili said. “I feel like coaches are going to regret the decision.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the Pirates proved their preseason doubters wrong given that they finished fifth, made a run to the Big East Tournament final and earned an NCAA Tournament invitation after they were projected to finish eighth in the 2018-19 season. This team has been synonymous with the mentality of proving themselves no matter how highly or lowly they are held by others, and Aiken’s mindset is no different.
"Personally, I don't concern myself much with preseason stuff,” Aiken said. “Being around these guys, I have nothing but optimistic stuff to say."
Given the talent on this roster, even a fifth-place projection is too high to categorize Seton Hall as underdogs this season. Many key pieces from that 2018-19 season are still on this roster as well, and they will know what it takes to remain competitive and potentially defend their regular season title.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.