5 observations from Seton Hall’s first win of the season: A Pitino lovefest, Rhoden’s career night, missing the fans, more

Seton Hall on Monday earned its first win of the 2020-21 season with an 86-64 blowout of Iona in Rick Pitino’s debut coaching the Gaels.

From Pitino’s reunion with his former protege Kevin Willard to Jared Rhoden’s career night to Willard revealing he dealt with COVID to playing the first home game without fans, there was a lot going on.

Here are five observations on the night.

A lovefest with Pitino, and a return game

Willard learned the game from his father, former coach Ralph Willard, and from Pitino, serving under him both with the Boston Celtics and at Louisville before becoming a head coach himself.

This contest marked yet another reunion, but it was Pitino’s first game coaching Iona after he was fired at Louisville in 2017.

The two men met wearing masks on the side of the court before the game and then shared a tender private moment afterward.

“I told him, ‘I love you, I’m so glad to see you back,’ and he said he loved me, too,” Willard said on a postgame Zoom. “It’s a weird emotion seeing someone that you worked with for so long and you have so much — you’ve been through a lot of things in your life personally with and professionally — I know with the inside knowledge of what he’s gone through the last three or four years, it’s a joy. When I saw him on the sideline, I said, ‘that’s where Rick Pitino belongs,’ and I think he landed at a phenomenal spot. It’s a tremendous college, and I think the two of them combined, I’m not going to be playing them in three or four years, I’ll tell you that much.”

They will play again next season in a return game at either Madison Square Garden or the Islanders’ new arena, as first reported Sunday by NJ Advance Media.

“To play Seton Hall this early in the year is a great gift from Kevin, which I really, really appreciate,” Pitino, 68, told reporters. “I love him so much. I’m happy that he gave us the opportunity to play. We’re going to learn so much from this game.”

While Pitino will get a return game, he won’t be getting a Rolex from Willard. The Iona coach Tweeted before the game that he was expecting a new watch after presenting Willard with one when the then-Iona coach played at Louisville.

“I’ve seen all the watches he has,” Willard said in his post-game radio interview. “That man does not need a new watch.”

Instead, Willard said, he would be sending Pitino a case of on his favorite “expensive cabernet.”

Rhoden responds to the challenge, has career night

If Seton Hall is going to accomplish what it wants to this season, they need junior Jared Rhoden to have a big year.

After Rhoden went 3-for-12 for 11 points with six rebounds in the season-opening loss to Louisville, Willard challenged the young man from Baldwin, N.Y.

“I yelled at Jared [Sunday],” Willard said on the radio. “I said, ‘Jared, where’s the guy that’s getting three offensive rebounds a game? Where’s the guy that runs the floor and is getting dunks? Where’s the guy that I can run things through?’ I said, ‘You wanna be the man, you gotta earn that. What makes Jared Rhoden so great is all the intangibles, high energy, great attitude, a guy that is cutting down the lane getting a layup.’ I said, ‘We all know you can score, but don’t lose what makes you really, really good.’”

Rhoden responded with a career-high 26 points on 7-of-14 shooting with 10 rebounds and three steals, scoring 16 points in the second half when the Pirates outscored the Gaels 51-27. If he can perform like that more often, Seton Hall could really be a dangerous team.

“That’s more what I was expecting, to be perfectly honest with you,” Willard said on the Zoom. “Jared went back to being what makes hi m special. He didn’t just try to score, he rebounded, he got on the break. That’s what makes Jared really tough to scout, is that he’s not just a shooter, he’s not just a guy that does one thing. He rebounded great, his energy and emotion were phenomenal, we really fed off that.”

Myles Cale came up big, too

Rhoden wasn’t the only player Willard challenged ahead of this game.

Cale, the senior wing, was nearly invisible against Louisville, managing just six points on 2-of-8 shooting with three rebounds.

Willard challenged Cale to become a better defender — actually to ‘Try to be the best Big East defender this year” — and let his offense flow from his defense.

The result was a 15-point, 5-rebound night.

“That’s really what I expected out of Myles, Jared and Sandro,” Willard said, referring to Mamukelashvili, who had 18 points and seven rebounds one game after going for 22 and 10. “Any one night, I think one of those guys could be big scorers.”

Reynolds running the show without Aiken

With Harvard grad transfer Bryce Aiken sidelined for a couple of weeks with an ankle sprain, as first reported by NJ Advance Media, Shavar Reynolds will shoulder the primary point guard duties during the near future, including the three remaining games this week.

Reynolds started, played 29 minutes and had five points with eight assists and three turnovers. One of his assists came on a lob pass to Tyrese Samuel (12 points) for a dunk in the first half.

“I think Shavar’s doing terrific what I’m asking him to do,” Willard said on the radio. “He’s going to gain more confidence as he plays more. He never started, now I’m asking him to play 30 minutes a game.

“Until we get Bryce back, I like the way Shavar is playing. Eight assists, that’s a good night.”

Freshman Jahari Long, who is now 6-5, managed just two points and zero assists in 11 minutes as the backup point guard. Willard said the COVID pause really hurt the freshmen Long and Dimingus Stevens, and it will take a while for them to get into the flow.

‘We miss our fans’

The Pirates won their first home game, but there were no fans on hand at Prudential Center to see it.

Seton Hall supporters had to watch the 9 p.m. tip on FS1 or listen on the radio.

“We miss our fans, we do,” Willard said on the radio. “We built something so great and our fans were a huge part of that.”

He cracked, “I miss the guy in the fourth row telling me how bad my plays are. I went up there and drew a mustache on him.”

Willard said Villanova coach Jay Wright paid him a compliment on the Seton Hall fans, telling him “I never ever thought I would fear going to Seton Hall but that place rocks.”

At Louisville, there were several thousand in the stands and Willard felt it made a difference for the home team. He pointed out that Butler and Creighton will be among Big East opponents to have fans.

“I think it’s going to give an extra boost to the home team that has fans,” he said.

Willard added an optimistic note going forward.

“We miss everybody, but you never know,” he said. “Hopefully in January or February we can have people here.”

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Adam Zagoria is a freelance reporter who covers Seton Hall and NJ college basketball for NJ Advance Media.

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