Notebook: Big East Media Day 2019

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There is plenty more to discuss aside from Seton Hall’s preseason hype train gaining more momentum by sweeping the top honors at Thursday’s Big East media day.

Myles Powell taking preseason player of the year and Seton Hall sitting first in the coaches poll are certainly the headliners from media day — and rightfully so — but that’s just scratching the surface. 

Like a Derrick Gordon-esque glue player, I’ll attempt to fill in all the gaps from an eventful day at Madison Square Garden.

Thoughts and observations

The general feeling was that the team’s summer tour of Italy didn’t live up to its potential. Logistically, a cancelled United flight forced Seton Hall to miss their first game / city, and Willard noted how they basically landed and drove five hours before immediately playing their first game, the first of two lopsided wins. Kindly put, the players said it was more of a bonding experience (and an eating experience) than a basketball experience. An Italian speaker, Sandro Mamukelashvili admitted he was the default tour guide and also did some translating along the way; he’s the Europe veteran of the group for sure.

By all accounts, Quincy McKnight was also supposed to attend media day. But whether it was a discipline issue or a motivational tactic (or both), Kevin Willard opted to leave him in South Orange and instead bring senior Romaro Gill, who said he was surprised when he was told he’d be attending. Willard spoke highly of McKnight’s offensive progression over the summer, but the senior combo guard will have to wait a couple months before he sets foot inside the Garden.

It might have been a small thing, but I noticed Seton Hall’s three players — Gill, Myles Powell, and Sandro Mamukelashvili — sitting front and center during the annual pre-interview session presentation by commissioner Val Ackerman. Almost every other player and coach was sitting together on the flanks of the four sections along the MSG sideline, except for those three. Later during interviews, Powell repeatedly harped upon setting an example of attention to detail and doing the small things in a professional manner (Gill and Sandro nodded in agreement), solidifying my belief that sitting in the front row was likely by design. 

Kevin Willard was on his A-game. Situated at center court and surrounded by the largest media scrum he’s had to experience to date, Willard was great with the media — a sharp contrast to his first few years at the helm, understandably. Sometimes combative and often close-guarded in those early days, Willard cracked several jokes on Thursday: he inferred Seton Hall was first in the poll only because the other coaches golf too much and didn’t take it seriously, he joked that he was secretly out in Napa Valley for a few days (“I love Napa”) when Myles Powell called him for support before his NBA pro day, and made a funny swipe re: negative recruiting against UConn. Willard also made a kind gesture by going out of his way to ask a young female reporter/intern if she had any questions because “she was getting boxed out” during the large scrum.

Quotes (Myles Powell, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Romaro Gill, Kevin Willard)

Powell, on if he and the team can sense the hype: “I do, but then again I don’t. Me, I’ve been with the Seniors [editorial: I noted to Myles it’s funny he still calls the 2014 class seniors] and we were so up and so down. I’ve been here for four years, so I know how it goes. Like you just said, last year we were 8th place and I wasn’t preseason player of the year and we came in and made a statement. But like I keep saying to everybody else, if we didn’t win those last two games — the Marquette and the Nova game — we would have been ninth place playing in the first night of the [Big East] Tournament. This conference is so good, all the teams were decided by one or two wins. Being preseason number one, it honestly doesn’t mean anything when the ball tips in a couple weeks, it’s 0-0. Anything can happen, we have to come in like we’re everybody’s best game and we have a target on our back — we’ve got to be ready.”

Powell on team having a target on their back: “For sure, last year when we were picked 8th, everybody that was in front of us had a target. It was ‘We’ve got to kill them, we’ve got to kill them.’ I try to tell these younger guys to remember a year ago where we were at and what we felt, just imagine what these guys feel. We’re going to be everybody’s best game and everybody is going to be looking to beat Seton Hall.”

Powell on the tough non-conference schedule: “If Coach didn’t believe in us, he wouldn’t have made that schedule. Every year that I’ve been here Coach has done a great job of making a schedule and preparing us. If he made a schedule like this that means he sees a lot in us and he expects a lot out of us.”

Powell on losing at Rutgers two years ago: “For sure. I remember like it was yesterday. When we played at Rutgers we were either 13th or 12th in the country. We lost and then later in the week we weren’t ranked anymore. They stormed the court, they made us feel like they just won a championship. A couple days later I think they lost to Stony Brook or something like that. Two weeks later coach is still telling us ‘You guys made their season.’ In college basketball period you don’t know what you’re going to get. I remember that like it was yesterday.”

Sandro, same hype question: “To be honest, we’re not focused on that right now. We just know we have to be in the perfect position to showcase ourselves and showcase our team. We’re just focused on getting better and just winning as many games as possible and everything else will come by itself.”

Sandro, on playing with two 7-footers now: “It’s amazing, they’ve developed so much more. Their hands, their post-up game, they’re so strong, they can block almost every shot. It’s just amazing having them, it’s like they’ve got your back and if something happens they can block everything.”

Romaro Gill, on playing with Ike Obiagu: “That’s tough. I’ve never been on the court with someone my height before. It’s a game-changer for me, I’ve never had my shot being blocked as much in the past. It’s good for me, because I know in the league I’m not going to run into anybody as tall as him, so I feel like it’s a good thing to practice and prepare against him.

I followed up about never going against someone as tall: “No, I’m always the tallest guy. With Ike here now, it’s like my evil twin brother. Being in the post, turning around I never normally have to look in somebody’s eyes, but when I turn around Ike is right there. I’ve had to learn how to alter my shot.”

Willard on the taller front court: “To have 7’1, 7’1, 260, 250– what hurt us last year, even though Mike [Nzei] and Sandro battled inside for us, no one was physically worried about us inside from a defensive and offensive standpoint. We go from starting 6’6 and 6’8 to 7’1 and 6’9 and coming off the bench with 7’1 and 6’11. Just from a defensive presence, we’re such a different team than we were last year. We can be more aggressive, we have the opportunity to press more, play small, play big. Last year we were more of a one-trick pony.”

Willard on being expectations being compared to the P.J. Carlesimo days, if he agrees: “Overall, yes. You have one of the best players in college basketball, one of the best players in Seton Hall history returning. You have a schedule where you have Maryland, Michigan State, Battle 4 Atlantis, not only do we have a great team and a great player but the schedule adds to that flavor.”

Willard reflecting on what he’d think of preseason first in poll and player of the year five years ago: “4 or 5 years ago, the class of Isaiah and Angel and those guys, they laid the foundation from a standpoint of work ethic. That group, they left a great legacy of winning and how they did it– they worked extremely hard as a group. That has carried over now, you’re not allowed to walk in our gym with a bad attitude or not work hard. That’s the two rules that group left. Four or five years ago, that started this foundation because those guys laid it with the hard work that they did.”

I followed up if he could envision first in the preseason poll before that class: “That was always the goal, I envisioned it. Was it reality? It was a hard reality, but that was always the goal. I said it when I got hired and I’ll say it now, it’s got to be your goal going in. A lot of guys from Patrik Auda to Eugene Teague have laid the groundwork– that class was special because of the way they worked but a lot of guys have come through here to get us over the hump.”

Willard on Pam Am Games experience: “Going up and watching how physical the FIBA game is, the rules, the players and seeing the systems and the concepts, they’re totally different than what we see in college. After every game we [Ed Cooley] would sit in our dorm room eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches saying ‘This is a really cool concept that Argentina is running, what they do on the break or what the Dominican Republic does with out of bound defenses.’ It was things we don’t see everyday and it really put me in a basketball mindset earlier than I usually am … We actually put quite a few things from what we did with FIBA into what we’re doing this year … What was really cool, it was a community. You’re sitting down with the coaches after the game, picking their brain and them picking our brain. It was amazing to sit there with great players, great coaches and pick up a few plays. I probably put in seven new things just from the FIBA stuff.”

Willard on Italy trip: “It was good, it wasn’t great just because our flight got cancelled on Wednesday and we didn’t get out ’till Friday night and then drove five hours and played a game– we missed a game, so the trip was great for the guys, a great bonding experience … But it wasn’t as good from a basketball difference because we had such issues with United.”