Seton Hall turns to the future as senior Mike Nzei moves on from Hall hoops

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Aside from being part of Seton Hall’s career all-smarts team, redshirt senior Mike Nzei will also be remembered for his contributions on the floor: four straight N.C.A.A. appearances.

The first Pirate to do so since Bryan Caver and Arturas Karnisovas appeared in four straight tournaments from 1991-94, Nzei should be thought of as a constant anchor from the year the 2014 recruiting class came aboard, to seeing them off, finally receiving the passed torch from last year’s seniors, and keeping the flame lit alongside Myles Powell.

Maybe in 25 years down the road, another writer will be referencing “… the first time since Mike Nzei did it from 2016-2019.”

From a double-double against Rutgers in his first season when fans hardly knew Mike and media hadn’t heard him speak yet, to the wild streak of consecutive made field goals early this season, Nzei was ever-present.

I’m sure Kevin Willard is really going to miss his equivalent of a three yard run up the gut that is dumping it down low to Mike at the start of a game or second half.

And I’d bet his teammates will miss the sure bet that was driving into the lane and finding Nzei cutting to the opposite block for a weak-side bucket or put-back.

“I mean, I never wanted this to come to an end, but you always make plans, and sometimes it doesn’t happen,” said the native of Nigeria in his final collegiate press conference.

“But I’m just thankful for my teammates for fighting with me throughout this journey and like sticking by my side. I feel like we came out today, we gave all we could, and it didn’t go our way, but we’ve just got to keep our head up.

“There’s always more road on this journey. So I’m really happy for these guys. I know they’ll have a bright future, and I can’t wait to see what they’re all going to achieve.”

An elegant answer for someone who spoke little English not many years ago yet looked media members in the eyes and spoke poetically and accurately when called upon this season.

Nzei played a key role in being quasi-father figure this year, helping guide a star player in Powell, while also mentoring a younger core of guys.

It was quite frequent that we’d hear from other players — even Powell — about how they would look to their senior leader for advice, on or off the court.

Imagine the alternative where Powell and this team were to go to war without someone like Nzei in the trenches to shield them from learning experiences they might have experienced in a more trial-by-fire fashion?

Nzei chaperoned his teammates to a place that no one, even Kevin Willard, expected them to be: the N.C.A.A. tournament.

He helped guide them away from a more volatile year and onto a path that featured productive learning experiences and has set the stage for an encore in 2019-20.

“I mean, we could start from the point of expectations people had for this team,” said Nzei of this team’s potential next year.

“Everyone thought it was a group of young guys, but these young guys showed they got heart and they showed they could fight. I look at them and I know the ceiling is so high, and I feel like this year for them is just a building and a learning year, and as time goes for next year, I believe a lot of the potential is going to come out fully.

“I feel like from this point, you’re going to see a team of mature guys, and I believe they’re going to keep fighting as time goes on and they’re developing.”

Depending on off-season roster fluctuation — there’s little chance Myles Powell is going anywhere — Nzei’s words could turn out to be prophetic.

Florida State sit-out transfer Ike Obiagu will literally fill Nzei’s shoes and then some and should add a major bonus on the defensive end with his shot-blocking prowess.

But Seton Hall seems to be a pure point guard or consistent second scorer away from making that next big leap; maybe those things can be found from within or from the graduate transfer market.

The torch that was forged by the 2014 class and handed to Mike Nzei, was passed onto Myles Powell late on Thursday night in Jacksonville as the junior sat just to the senior’s left.

Soon, Powell will become that senior and assume the role that Nzei, his friend and teammate, played.

“Mike is a great guy. Our journey goes on past just these three years (together),” said Powell.

“When Mike came over here (from Nigeria), we played AAU together for the New Jersey Playaz. This is my blood brother right here, we’re not just teammates.

“We’re still going to talk. He’s still going to help me lead this team from afar. Just because he’s not here, I know the person Mike is. He’s still going to be with us.

“When you let a guy like this go, it hurts, but like I said, I know Mike is still going to be with us.”