SOUTH ORANGE — A new-look Seton Hall team was officially unveiled on Thursday at the team’s media day as the Pirates’ season-opener against Wagner sits just over the horizon.
New faces. New storylines. New season.
We’re now just four days away from seeing the next chapter of Seton Hall hoops unfold after last season’s senior class put pen to proverbial paper for the last time in Wichita what seems like an eternity ago.
A much younger team that looks poised to butter their bread on defense, the boards, and on the fast break, oozed an up-beat vibe that gelled with Kevin Willard’s comments at Big East media day about the team carrying a less serious demeanor than the departed seniors.
Now situated in Seton Hall’s auxiliary practice gym in the bowels of the Richie Regan Athletic Center (as opposed to Walsh Gym), media day saw Willard joke about his pre-game shaving ritual, transfer Taurean Thompson attract the largest throng of media, and much more.
I have held back some quotes I am using on a feature story about the senior class passing the torch to this group and would also like to note that the feature photo is clearly from the conference media day; Wendell Cruz (site photographer) is on board for another year of coverage.
That being said, I’ve recapped the most significant happenings of the day below.
Kevin Willard has dealt with significant turnover not only on his playing roster, but on the coaching staff as Tony Skinn and Duane Woodward took over for Shaheen Holloway and Fred Hill over the summer. Before he was an assistant at Louisiana Tech, Skinn played point guard on George Mason’s historic Final Four team as well as for the Nigerian national team (which helped sway transfer Ike Obiagu from Florida State). As for Woodward (a local guy), he played for Al Skinner’s Boston College before a long stint overseas that eventually saw him become an assistant coach at Monmouth.
Willard on the coaching changes: “When Sha’ and Freddie left, I wanted young guys that brought good energy to a young group. Tony (Skinn) being from the DC area, I loved his background. He took (George) Mason to a final four and he played for his national team … And then Duane (Woodward) has been on my radar for a while. We’ve been friends. I’ve respected the job he’s done, moved up. He was always on my radar … It was a sad day when he got the job (Sha at Saint Peter’s) but it was also one of the happiest days I’ve had as a coach.”
Willard on this team being a perennial NCAA hopeful now: “It’s what this team should expect. That’s the legacy that those guys left. We were just talking about that this afternoon, what the expectation is, what the work effort needs to be … The long answer is yes, this group expects to make the tournament year-in, year-out.”
After the team filed into the stands listen to their coach speak to the media like he does every year, they were the next to field questions and it was Syracuse transfer Taurean Thompson who was swamped right off the bat.
Thompson has an aura of confidence that is also present in how he speaks. Firm, blunt when he needs to be, he doesn’t mince words… did I mention confidence?
The main story orbiting Seton Hall’s big man is that he was held out of the Boston College scrimmage due to chest pains. Willard said they didn’t have access to a cardiologist being on the road, so they held him out of the game as a precaution and that scans came up clean once they returned to Jersey.
Thompson didn’t say much to squash any fears, however. When asked if he had felt the pain in the past, “Yeah. I was on a bus for five hours (before BC). I got off the bus and I just started playing, I didn’t warm up. And when I felt it before (then), it was the same thing.”
Aside from what hopefully isn’t a recurring issue, Thompson opened up for the first time since his transfer from Syracuse, citing a broken elbow that would likely had impacted his year at the ACC school as well as wanting to be closer to home as reasons for leaving; he said he didn’t consider anyone but Seton Hall.
“I broke my elbow (at Syracuse), so I was like I might not be ready for the season. So that also played a role in me coming to Seton Hall. August of last summer. While at Syracuse, playing outside. Surgery, a bunch of screws in it. I’m all good now, I’m strong.”
Moving onto the next most popular guy at the dance, Myles Powell was a classy interview as always — his attention to making eye contact is more consistent than one of his uncontested outside shots, and that’s saying something.
Powell has had to shoulder a majority of the media attention this preseason and has embraced the role alongside lone senior Mike Nzei. The junior shooting guard opened up about how the two go back to their AAU days with the NJ Playaz and are both very religious, praying together before every game.
The Trenton native remembers when a now outspoken Nzei was quiet and hardly spoke English after moving to the states from Africa; the two have taken different but similar paths to manhood.
“When he first came over he didn’t really speak English and he was a quiet guy,” said Powell of Nzei. “Just like he’s seen me grow in a man, I’ve watched him grow into a man. And Mike is a very successful man off the court too. The basketball can stop bouncing for Mike right now and he would be totally fine.”
Powell, who looks to be the team’s de facto leader on the court, is probably the best source the ask about who he thinks is going to step up this year. He tapped Anthony Nelson, Romaro Gill, and Sandro Mamukelashvili as guys he trusts while also noting how Nelson and Myles Cale have started following him to get extra shots up outside of practice.
When I asked Myles about Sha’ leaving, he of course wished him the best but first spoke about the two new guys, adding how Tony Skinn still has game and tries to participate like a player as much as possible. I tried to bait him into picking a winner of Skinn vs. Sha in a 1-on-1, but he wouldn’t bite. (“That’d be a good one”)
Shifting attention to Seton Hall’s co-leader, I felt like I was speaking to a Mike Nzei I hadn’t met before. And come to think of it, he has rarely made appearances (if any) to post-game interviews over the past few seasons.
Echoing Powell’s sentiments, Nzei was incredibly open and eccentric when speaking to media on Thursday — I did not expect as much.
Shifting between sincerity and comedy, Nzei described fellow forward Thompson as quite the unique guy.
“Taurean, if you ask anybody they’ll tell you he’s the funniest guy on the team,” said Nzei when asked about how Taurean doesn’t own a cell phone. “He gets by, he has his laptop and his iPod where he does everything. It’s like if you want to contact Taurean you’ve got to go to his room or wait for him to open his iPod.
“He’s his own person. I respect that, when you’re just your own self and you don’t try to copy other people. He respects people, he does everything right.”
And just like Powell, Nzei named seven-footer Romaro Gill as a potential breakout candidate.
“I always had a feeling Ro’ was going to be a great player,” said Nzei. “Apart from having Taurean on the team, Ro’ is the other guy I wouldn’t want to be on the other team, he’s always blocking and altering shots … I see Ro’ doing that a lot and I was really happy for him as a person (after BC performance).”
If you had to name a third team captain, versatile guard Quincy McKnight gets the nod.
Usually sitting out a year-plus is torture for this generation of players, McKnight actually labeled it easy. Helps when you’re winning.
“Mentally it’s been fine. Around this time last year I thought it was going to be hard for me to sit out, but once the season got going and we were winning games. It’s easier once you’re winning, coming from a university where I was losing a lot. It definitely changed my whole mentality coming into practice everyday, everybody has positive energy all the time. It was easy to sit out last year.”
McKnight, who only realized he was transferring to another “SHU” when a Sacred Heart advisor mentioned it jokingly on his way out, is being molded by Kevin Willard as a Khadeen Carrington 2.0.
“Coming into here that was the thing coach was stressing to me, was being a floor general. I didn’t know what it was at first then I got to watch Khadeen. Khadeen helped me a lot because he had the same transition as I did — he gave me pointers on that.”
If he lives up to his own billing (many others have touted his defensive prowess too), McKnight will be a tougher defender than Carrington.
“A guard that is going to bring what Deeno brought to the team last year,” he told me of what label he’d like relayed to the fans before they see him play. “The electricity, the energy, smacking the floor, getting after it on defense, scoring the ball.
– Freshman Anthony Nelson wants to average six assists per game. His brother, Courtney, played for Rutgers from 2006-08. “When I was cutting my (recruiting) list, I was thinking of putting Rutgers in there but I just didn’t.”
– Speaking about the culture of winning at Seton Hall, Quincy McKnight recalled how there were arguments during his recruiting visit to the school when he played in a pick-up game with the players. That’s how bad he could sense the guys wanted to win.
– Myles Cale on Willard saying this team jokes more than last year: “I think it’s definitely true. We have a lot of young talent here. We be dancing all the time. He hates it when we dance. (laughs)”
– Yet another player to compliment Romaro Gill was McKnight, his quote might be the best: “Ro’ is going to surprise so many people this year. I think he is the most slept on person on this team. He’s a great shot-blocker, he’s going to alter so many shots … for a seven-footer, he gets up and down like no other.”
– Sandro Mamukelashvili was absent from media day. Powell said he mistook Sandro for Angel Delgado during the Boston College scrimmage since he nearly put up a double-double (8 pts, 13 boards) so easily.