Jacksonville Media Day: Seton Hall toughness could loom large against Wofford

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Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight, Mike Nzei and Kevin Willard took the podium prior to Seton Hall’s open practice at Jacksonville round of 64 media day on Wednesday evening.

A central theme was the team’s toughness and ability to overcome adversity during a season in which they have been constantly overlooked, starting with a bottom-tier prediction in the pre-season Big East coaches poll.

The Seton Hall quartet faced off with media last today and directly after Wofford and head coach Mike Young, who reiterated his unfamiliarity with Seton Hall — something he mentioned on a CBS Sports Network interview on Selection Sunday (“I know nothing about them”) — but was sure to note the toughness he has seen on tape since Sunday.

“I don’t know Kevin (Willard) at all. I don’t know Seton Hall very well, honestly,” said Young.

“You hear all these projections and they say this school, they say this school, and then Seton Hall pops up, and it’s like, oh, gosh. But I have thoroughly enjoyed — he makes you uncomfortable, and I admire that. And match-up and 2-2-1, back to match-up and man-to-man and switch some things and not switch some things.

“Kevin is — he’s exceptional. I mean, I’ve seen them play. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen them play now. But he’s an awfully fine basketball coach.

“Kevin is really, really good. There’s a lot of things that go — I referenced a great coach. A great coach to me is a team that plays really, really hard, and his team plays really, really hard. Trying to get a better understanding of Seton Hall and Kevin’s team, talked to some people, without divulging great Big East secrets, every one of them referenced how hard they play, and they will never stop. They keep coming. The physicality and toughness is a part of their game that I admire greatly.”

It could be a media tactic, but it’s a bit odd to hear a head coach seem so unprepared about an opponent. That said, Young ultimately nailed it.

If there’s one thing to know about this Seton Hall team, it’s the Big East grit they possess, perhaps more than any of the other nine schools.

It’s what ultimately punched this team’s ticket.

“You know, the Georgetown game was a tough one for us, losing in double overtime, and I think it was just our fight,” said Quincy McKnight of what turned the team’s season around.

“Those three games, losing those was tough for us, you about we knew we could bounce back and we knew we could make a run, and that’s all Coach really pushed for, to make a run. Last year with the four seniors, we were kind of in the same predicament where we had to win a lot of games to make it to the tournament, and we just fight. That’s what our motto has been all year, just keep fighting, and that’s all we really did was just keep pushing.”

When asked about his keys to keeping the proverbial gas tank filled despite a tough gauntlet of Marquette, Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette, and Villanova ago, Mike Nzei — the team’s genius — might be spot on about a key intangible between Wofford and Seton Hall.

“I think it’s all about preparation. We have a great coaching staff that’s worked with us all summer to get us mentally prepared for the ups and downs of the season. The season is a grind, so sometimes you get down, you have to pick yourself back up, like during the Big East Tournament we had to play back-to-back nights. It’s just the toughness in us and the support from our coaches that kept us going.”

While the Southern Conference was a lot better this season than their average output (see: four top-80 KenPom teams), some of the grueling games and hurdles that Seton Hall had to maneuver surely were tougher.

Despite the Pirates’ ability to overcome this season, both the outside and inside perspective has strangely defaulted to doubt.

Bottom third of the preseason poll. NIT after the Georgetown loss.

Now a 10-seed and an underdog status from KenPom, Vegas, and the Selection Committee. This team wouldn’t have it any other way.

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

“At this point we as a team, we didn’t get a lot of respect going into the season, but we’re only looking at what we have within us, so we’re just out here ready to prove and show people what we can do,” said Nzei, who is embracing his fourth and final trip to the Dance.

“We’re really just worried about ourselves as a team and just trying to get the job done.”

“We had three great games in the Big East Tournament and had a great shot to win it with the right guy taking it,” added Willard, reflecting on the team’s progress since last spring.

“I’m just really proud of getting back to this point four years in a row. It just shows you a lot about the character of the kids on this team and the leadership of Myles Powell, how much he’s meant to this team and how much he’s grown.”

“Just having our backs against the wall and pretty much everybody doubting us,” said ringleader Powell of what has been the most difficult part of the season.

“We knew what we had to do, and pretty much our season was on the line and we just had to believe in each other and just keep fighting, and that’s been our story all year, just to keep fighting.”

Winning a game at this year’s tournament is icing on the cake of what can already be labeled a successful season, without a doubt.

This was a two-year project that has morphed into a potential surprise Sweet 16 appearance if the chips fall just right; Kentucky’s PJ Washington, who scored 29 against Seton Hall at the Garden, has an uncertain status.

The Pirates are playing with house money and have a chance to really put some emphasis behind what a textbook “retooling” season looks like.

Growth in areas like a star players’ leadership, the emergence of a low-major transfer in Quincy McKnight to become a high-major ball hawk and point guard, and the evolution of rotation players like Myles Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili into more consistent starters, despite the growing pains.

“For me it (last season) was easy following the four seniors. They did such a great job on and off the court of leading this program to the right direction, so I mean, now the spotlight is on all us three right here and it’s different,” said Powell.

“But we’re definitely ready for it, our coach has prepared us for it, and we’ve got each other’s back.”

“I’m really proud of my team, the way we’ve played really since February 9th. We’ve really been playing aggressively defensively. We’ve been playing great together,” said Willard.

“Myles Powell has been absolutely off the charts. But I think I’ve been proud of my sophomores. They’ve really grown up. Quincy McKnight has given us such a spark defensively. And our guys coming off the bench I just think have been so steady. We’ve gotten such great production, Shavar Reynolds has given us big minutes, Romaro Gill has really grown up. Jared Rhoden and Anthony Nelson, my two freshmen, I’ve been so happy with their development.”

Thursday night is another milestone in this group’s journey to become something even more special in 2019-20.

But for now, let’s enjoy the present. This team still has something to prove. To themselves, neutrals, Mike Young, Wofford, and even some fans.