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2020-21 Big East Men’s Basketball Team Preview: Seton Hall Pirates

Xavier v Seton Hall Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Team: Seton Hall Pirates

2019-20 Record: 21-9, 13-5 in the Big East

2019-20 Big East Finish: A three-way tie for first place, but ended up as the #3 seed in the conference tournament by way of tiebreakers.

Final 2019-20 KenPom Ranking: #20

Postseason Projection: Bracket Matrix slotted them in as a #3 seed, which would have been their best placing since the 1992-93 season.

Key Departures: We can have a fun conversation about which of Seton Hall’s seniors is actually the biggest loss to the team from last year to this year. The obvious first place answer is Myles Powell, because in a sense, you don’t get much bigger than losing the Big East Player of the Year. Powell wrapped up his college career by posting 21.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. However, we get to introduce doubt to the entire process as to whether he is the biggest loss because Quincy McKnight exists. Well, that, and the fact that Powell shot just 30.6% from behind the arc all season long on more than nine attempts per game and just 26.5% in Big East contests.

Yeah! The guy missing nearly seven threes a game was voted as the best player in the league when Ty-Shon Alexander was just right next to him doing all sorts of things! It’s completely insane!

Meanwhile, McKnight gave the Pirates 11.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, and a team high 5.4 assists per game. He was also the only Pirate to start all 30 games, and he massacred Powell in the efficiency department 111.7 to 102.8 per KenPom.com. Shooting 35% on threes probably had a lot to do with that. Turns out making shots is more efficient than missing 70% of them. Who knew??

The Pirates also lose Romaro Gill to the end of eligibility. The 7’2” Jamaican didn’t score much (7.8 points per game) or rebound much given his size (5.6/game), but that gets balanced out by the big man posting the fifth best block rate in the country.

Anthony Nelson is the only other name that we should probably mention here. He averaged 12.5 minutes per game in 27 appearances last year, so that’s a regular rotation guy. Nelson’s 2.3 assists per game in limited minutes is a pretty good output for a bench guy, so that’s a kind of guy that you don’t think you miss until you don’t have him around any more.

Key Returners: Can I interest you in a Sandro Mamukelashvili? The big Georgian averaged 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.4 assists last season while shooting a wowza 43% from behind the arc on just under three attempts per game.

While Seton Hall is losing three of their top five scorers, including the gangbusters Powell, their overall rotation is coming back pretty intact. Counting Mamukelashvili, who missed 10 games, SHU returns six guys who averaged at least 10.5 minutes per game last season and four of them are north of 15. Jared Rhoden is probably the most notable name next down the list, as the 6’6” New York native ended up with the team lead in rebounds last year at 6.4 per game. Rhoden only started 15 games, though, while Myles Cale started in 25 of 30 for Seton Hall. His 6.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game are perfectly fine for a Big East caliber starter, but he’s probably going to need to do more this season. Shavar Reynolds is the last big inclusion here that I want to point out, although he was really just filling a spot on the court for 16 minutes a night more than anything else.

At least one of Tyrese Samuel and Ike Obiagu are primed to have a big role on the team this season, both literally and metaphorically. With Gill gone, the 6’10” Samuel and the 7’2” Obiagu are going to need to give more than the 10 or so minutes per game they played this past season. Samuel averaged nearly two three-pointers attempted per game as a freshman last year, so boosting his minutes seems like a much more intriguing possibility for the potential ceiling of this team.

Key Additions: Get ready to get underwhelmed, as Seton Hall brings in 247 Sports’ #87 ranked recruiting class. That’s the eighth best class in the conference, and that’s what happens when your only two freshman signees are the #244 and #245 players in the country. SHU also lists Jeff Ngandu as a freshman on the roster. I’m not exactly sure what his deal is, as his 247 Sports page still lists him as part of the Class of 2019, but it says he’s a 6’9”, 220 pound center.

While the freshmen aren’t expected to do much this season, we can’t say the same for Bryce Aiken. The Harvard graduate is in South Orange for his final year of eligibility, and we will have to wait and see how much he brings to the table. As we talked about when it was reported that MU reached out to Aiken back in March, he has only played 65 college basketball games in four years. He hasn’t played more than 20 in a season other than in his freshman year, and he suffered a season ending injury after playing in just seven contests in 2019-20, and that was after missing Harvard’s first four games. When he can play, Aiken is great: 16.8 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 35% shooting from behind the arc. But he’s missed 55 games in his collegiate career and he hasn’t played a college basketball game since December 21, 2019.

Coach: Kevin Willard, entering his 11th season at Seton Hall and 14th season as a head coach. He has a record of 190-135 with the Pirates and 235-184 overall.

Outlook: Look. I’m the grand marshall of the “Actually, Myles Powell was bad in 2019-20” parade. However, my duties extend only to protesting that he had no business being named Big East Player of the Year. They do not cover trying to come up with reasons why Seton Hall is going to be better in 2020-21 just because Powell isn’t on the roster any more, because that’s just insanity. The dude was very good at basketball, that’s clear, he just was very bad at one particular aspect of it during his final collegiate season.

We can’t pretend that last season wasn’t a rousing success for the Pirates. As mentioned earlier, they were on track to end up with their best NCAA tournament seed in over 25 years. A lot of that has to do with Powell being great at most things on the court and generally creating a gravitational field that drew defenders to him and helped everyone else get open to hit shots and make plays. The big question for Seton Hall as they try to extend the longest streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in program history is how are they going to proceed without Powell working his magic?

A lot of the weight will presumably get picked up by Sandro Mamukelashvili. When you’ve got a guy that big and tall who can move as well as Mamu does and he can hit outside shots like Mamu can — 43% last season — then you need to make use of that guy as a mismatch machine. The best part about Seton Hall’s current roster construction is that Mamukelashvili can play the 4 in the lineup because they have Ike Obiagu and Tyrese Samuel there to do things inside.

If Kevin Willard’s system requires a guard to do a lot of work, that means that the Pirates are going to ask a lot of Bryce Aiken. The question, I think, is whether he’s going to be doing Myles Powell things or Quincy McKnight things. McKnight was a great table setter, and Aiken showed the possibility of doing that in his first two years with the Crimson, posting assist rates north of 22%. Injuries can rob you of speed and strength, but they can’t douse the ability to know when and where to throw a pass for maximum usage. If Aiken can be that guy, that’s good news for Seton Hall.

Aiken has also shown an ability to knock down threes. He’s a career 35% long range shooter, including a 39.8% mark in his third season in Cambridge. In three of his four seasons where he appeared in games for Harvard, Aiken hit at least 37% of his threes against what KenPom.com calls “Tier A” opponents, which is essentially top 50 foes. In nine games across four seasons, Aiken is shooting 35% against Tier A opponents, which is great. In 17 games against Tier A+B opponents — essentially top 100 foes — that number dips a little bit to just 34%. It’s not great, but it’s good enough to get by.... and it’s better than Powell’s 31% in 21 games against similar opponents last season. If SHU is going to use Aiken as a Powell replacement in the lineup, that’s not necessarily the worst idea in the world.

I’ve now advocated for Aiken getting used to replace both starting guards, so obviously the move by Willard would be to have Aiken do both things depending on the situation. The question is who ends up playing the other guard spot in the meantime. That likely means getting Shavar Reynolds more involved or possibly Myles Cale. Both guys have only been part time players over their first three seasons with Seton Hall, with Reynolds working his way into a bigger role and Cale actually seeing his minutes fall from sophomore to junior year. Even if Aiken can come in and be pretty good from Day One, the Pirates are probably going to need bigger contributions from both guys to end up replacing what Powell gave them a year ago.

This seems to be an NCAA tournament caliber team for sure, and that’s great news for Kevin Willard’s long term future with the program. Contending for the Big East title like they did in 2019-20? I don’t see it, not with Villanova, Creighton, and Connecticut most likely in front of SHU in the pecking order. Still, “a sixth straight NCAA tournament if you give them credit for 2020” is a perfectly acceptable fate, as most Marquette fans reading this would break their pinky fingers to get that right now.