Ismael Sanogo is the Key to Seton Hall’s Success

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 13th, 2016

When Ismael Sanogo committed to Seton Hall in July 2013, few outside of those within the program took notice. Here was a player who chose a struggling Seton Hall team four months removed from a 3-15 Big East season (its worst in 28 years) over the likes of recent Final Four participant VCU, George Mason, Saint Joseph’s and Pennsylvania. At that moment, any of those schools could have looked like better options to a 17-year-old Sanogo. He could have seen more playing time as a freshman in a conference like the Atlantic 10 or pursue an elite education from an Ivy League school. Instead, the local kid from Newark decided to stay home and commit to Kevin Willard’s struggling Big East program.


Ismael Sanogo has developed into a major contributor as a sophomore for surging Seton Hall. (Credit: Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports)

The initial scoop on Sanogo was a wiry defense-first tweener who needed time to develop his body and offensive game. At 6’6″ and 185 pounds, Sanogo needed to bulk up in order to contribute at the college level. Fast forward to his 2014-15 freshman season and “Ish” would not find himself getting off of Willard’s bench very often. Sanogo received an average of only 5.3 minutes per game in just 18 of Seton Hall’s 31 games as the Pirates lost nine of their last 10 games after beginning with a 15-6 record. It was an ugly end to a once-promising season as outside distractions and chemistry issues sunk the Pirates’ ship.

Expectations were not much higher as this season got underway back in November. Seton Hall was picked seventh in the 10-team Big East, just barely ahead of perennial bottom-feeder DePaul and ninth-rated Creighton. Willard was on the hot seat entering his sixth season and the Pirates had a whole lot of uncertainty at the power forward position. The question of who would be their starting four going forward was immediately answered in the opening game against Dartmouth. Sanogo got the start and looked like a revelation: nine points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots and a perfect 4-of-4 shooting from the floor in 28 minutes of action.  While still somewhat raw offensively, Ish brought desperately needed athleticism, defense and rebounding to the lineup and has only improved as the season wore on. After a home victory over Marquette on February 3, Willard heaped high praise on his sophomore forward: “Ish is the hardest working kid I’ve ever had – ever,” he said. “He’s got that attitude. He wants to prove himself every night and he works that way.” But the best was still yet to come for Sanogo.

Playing in the Big East championship game on Saturday night, Sanogo put all of his hard work on display for the college basketball world to see. Seton Hall won its first Big East crown since 1993 with Ish coming up big as he always seems to. Fighting through a stomach bug that caused him to throw up multiple times before the game (according to Pirates beat writer Jerry Carino on Twitter), Sanogo picked up deflection after deflection, grabbed nine rebounds and did not miss a single shot. His efforts were rewarded with a spot on the all-tournament team. Not bad for a lightly recruited player who needed to put in a lot of work to contribute at this level, wouldn’t you say? In the interview room after the game, Sanogo put how far he has come into perspective: “It’s like a dream come true,” he said. “Who would have ever thought a kid from Newark would make it to play at Seton Hall and make it into the NCAA and win a Big East championship? I’m telling you now I sure didn’t. I didn’t think I was going to be this far in life right now. I’m just so glad that Coach gave me an opportunity to play here.”

Seton Hall won its first Big East Tournament championship in 23 years on Saturday night. (Credit: Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)

Seton Hall enters its first NCAA Tournament in 10 years with Sanogo playing a crucial role. He can defend anyone from guards to post players because of his length and outstanding athleticism. He is a cerebral defensive player with great anticipation, positioning and the ability to read what’s happening on the floor. While Isaiah Whitehead drives the bus offensively (and is a strong defensive player in his own right), Sanogo and graduate transfer Derrick Gordon provide the necessary leadership and set the tone on the defensive end. This had to happen for Seton Hall to succeed this year and you can certainly argue that Sanogo’s development is the main reason why the Pirates are still playing. In truth, all of Seton Hall’s rotation players are good defenders but Sanogo is a cut above. Big East teams raised their collective eyebrows and took notice when he locked down Marquette stud freshman Henry Ellenson in the very first game of league play on December 30. In the final Big East game of the season last night, Ish took it to another level for the nation to see. Willard agreed. “He played the best college basketball game I’ve watched in a long time on the defensive end. He was phenomenal.”

The kid from Newark and his team have made it back to college basketball’s main event. “Whoever we play better watch out,” Whitehead said last night. If he is right and the Pirates win multiple games over the next couple of weeks, you can bet that Ish Sanogo will be one of the key reasons why.

Brian Otskey (269 Posts)

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