Entering his third season, Kevin Willard is a lot more optimistic about Seton Hall's chances than his fellow coaches in the Big East.
"I like this team a lot," Willard said. "For the first time since I've been here, we have a full roster, so we can use different combinations to throw at people. This is by far the best team we've had. This year's team has a lot of different guys we can depend upon. I'm the most excited about this team."
No one expected the Pirates to do much last season, but they were one of the Big East's biggest surprises, finishing with a 21-13 record overall and an 8-10 mark in the league. They were considered an NCAA bubble team, but were bypassed and participated in the NIT instead.
The Pirates lost their top two scorers, point guard Jordan Theodore (16.1 ppg) and forward Herb Pope (15.1 ppg, 10.4 rebounds per game), to graduation. But this team does not have a single senior on the roster, and the upside is everywhere.
A pair of junior forwards — Fuquan Edwin (6-foot-6) and Patrik Auda (6-9) — lead the way. The former started all but one game last season, and the latter started 26 times. Edwin averaged 12.5 points and 6.2 rebounds along the way, while Auda posted clips of 6.8 and 4.0, respectively.
"Fuquan and Patrik have been great," Willard said. "They understand what we want to do in practice. They understand the league and they've been setting the tone in practice."
A rugged summer workout plan, where the team stayed together, has Auda believing in the team's chances.
"We made a trip to Spain and played some games there in August," Auda said. "We've been together for a while. Sure, it looks like we're a new team, but we're doing well."
Auda knows that his role as a voice on the team is important.
"Right now, I understand I'm one of the oldest players we have, so I have to be a leader, along with Fuquan," Auda said. "I tried to learn last year and the year before from the older guys we had. Now, it's my turn to be a leader and do anything to help the team. It's a big step up for me. We have to bring some of the newcomers along, but our newcomers have some experience because they are transfers."
One of the top transfers is 6-6 junior forward Brian Oliver, who sat out last year after transferring from Georgia Tech. He averaged 10.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game for the Yellow Jackets two seasons ago.
"Brian was already one of our leading scorers in our exhibition game (against Wilmington last week)," Willard said. "He played in the ACC and did well there. He's a tough, physical player and he's also a good shooter.
"He gives us a lot of looks."
Another key transfer is 6-foot guard Kyle Smyth, who averaged 5.5 points last year at Iona and joins the Pirates as a graduate student. Smyth, a New Jersey native, is a sharpshooter who had another year of eligibility remaining. His Gaels made the NCAA tournament last season.
Among the returnees, guard Aaron Cosby and forward Brandon Mobley will play huge roles. Cosby made 31 starts last year as a shooting guard, and averaged nearly eight points. He will get the first chance at trying to replace Theodore. Cosby, though, suffered a setback when he sprained a knee in preseason.
"Aaron is doing fine," Willard said. "We'll see how he progresses over the weekend. He's a little limited (with) what he can do defensively, but he's been getting comfortable in the new role before he got hurt, going from someone who has a scorer's mentality to someone who has to sets up others. Sure, he'll struggle at times, but he'll be fine."
The 6-9 Mobley showed moments of brilliance last season, averaging 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in 25 games.
Of the freshmen, guard Tom Maayan from Israel has the best chance of contributing.
"Tommy has been really good," Willard said. "He's a natural point guard who doesn't look to do too much except getting other guys involved."
Sophomore guards Freddie Wilson and Haralds Karlis are two others who contributed last season.
Despite the potential and the optimism in South Orange, the Pirates were still picked to finish 14th in the 15-team league.
"We did better than people expected last year, so we're not worried about that," Auda said. "No one gave us much of a chance. It's the same like last year.
"We're going to keep working hard and trying to improve."