When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, UConn athletics will be back where they belong in the Big East. Of course, this Big East isn’t exactly the same as when the Huskies were last members, so we caught up with writers who cover those schools to get the lowdown on how things are going.
For this edition, Chris Nowak, the Seton Hall writer for Big East Coast Bias took some time to answer our questions on the new conference and Seton Hall basketball.
Note: these questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.
What have the last seven years been like without UConn in the Big East?
It’s certainly been fascinating. A lot of the programs that were stymied in the gargantuan conglomerate that the Big East became from 2005-13 have really risen to the occasion. Seton Hall perhaps has had the most prominent of rises, as after two decades of merely hanging around, the program became a sturdy contender in the conference from 2016 onward through to this past season. UConn absolutely had a stranglehold on things while they were gone, but their exit certainly helped some of the have nots in the conference rise up. I still certainly missed them quite a bit.
What was your fanbase’s reaction to the news that UConn was rejoining the Big East?
I think that on the whole for the Big East, there were mixed feelings. Some still held some resentment for the way things broke down with UConn. Others seemed to enjoy it and got excited for future potential matchups.
Aside from renewing old rivalries, one of the biggest perks of the Big East is an easier travel schedule for both teams and fans. Assuming it’s safe to travel come college basketball season, what do Huskies fans need to know about your arena(s)? Any restaurants/bars/destinations you recommend?
The Prudential Center is a pretty solid joint that UConn fans should probably be familiar with from the back-half of the late 2000s. It’s easily accessible through the very unreliable New Jersey Transit as Newark Penn Station is just a mere walk away from the arena. Newark has some pretty great pizza. NICO Kitchen + Bar and Mercato’s Tomato Pie among the best. In nearby Hoboken, Isla is a great Mexican place, and Jersey City’s home to Brownstone Diner. Both are Triple D faves.
UConn and Seton Hall have been involved in plenty of classics during the old Big East days. Is there one game from the first go around that sticks out for you?
Off the bat, although it didn’t go well for The Hall, their matchup on February 5, 2011 stands out. The one where Kemba hit a 3 with 2 and change to go and take the lead when the Pirates were trying to snap a lengthy losing streak to UConn. The following year’s matchup was pretty fun for the Pirates, since they finally got off the schneid.
Towards the end of the old Big East and in the early years of the Kevin Willard era, Seton Hall was a perennial .500 team that would occasionally crack into the bottom of the top 25. Now, the Pirates are a mainstay in the top 25 and would have made the NCAA tournament for a fifth-straight season if there was one this year. What has Willard done to change the culture and make Seton Hall a consistent contender in the new Big East?
It’s a really simple answer, but getting an influx of talent in really aided things. I think certain windfalls that programs around them took were able to help them level up in the world. But they were just able to get better talent. It really boils down to that. Willard’s been a stout coach at the helm though and he’s been able to be an architect for what is one of the most prosperous eras of Seton Hall hoops.
Recruiting is always tough in the Big East, and UConn coming into the conference will make it tougher. We’ve already seen UConn head coach Dan Hurley use his New Jersey ties to pry Adama Sanogo away from the Pirates. Do you think the Huskies and Hurley’s New Jersey ties are a real threat to the Pirates’ ability to recruit in their home state?
It’s hard to argue that considering that, right now, Seton Hall hasn’t made an impact in the New Jersey recruiting rankings for 2020. As for 2021, that’s yet to be determined, but if UConn can start hauling in talented players like Sanogo from New Jersey away from Seton Hall then there can definitely be a tipping of the scales.
The Pirates lost star guard Myles Powell due to graduation but did land arguably the top backcourt transfer available in former Harvard guard Bryce Aiken, and now Canisius transfer Takal Molson is eligible after sitting out this past season. Replacing a star like Powell isn’t easy, but do you think this duo can pick up where he left off?
Aiken and Molson should be able to bounce off each other if their most recent numbers hold. Molson excelled inside and Aiken was a big threat from outside. Takal ranked sixth in the MAAC in two-point field goal percentage against conference opponents in the 2019-20 season, while Aiken finished fifth in 3-point field goal percentage against Ivy League opponents back in the 2018-19 season. They likely won’t be able to replace a guy like Powell, but they should be able to fill some needs and excel in their own areas if their talents translate.
Outside of Molson and Aiken, which returning player has the potential to break out this year as a leading scorer or a useful complement to Aiken and Molson?
It starts and ends, to me, with Sandro Mamukelashvili. Mamu was a serious threat inside and was getting to really define himself as a post threat for the Pirates as the season chugged on. Myles Cale might also be able to complement them too, as Cale is likely due to get a bigger role going forward.