"Impossible to replace." That's how Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard described Jeremy Hazell, the team's leading scorer (19.8 ppg) last season, who finished his college career third in school history with 2,146 points.
Yet that is the challenge facing Willard in his second season at the helm in South Orange.
"I'm more comfortable because I have five guys who know what we're trying to do. I have five guys I can depend on to get me through practice," said Willard. "But in this league you're never really comfortable -- or at least you shouldn't be."
Willard was speaking at the Big East's annual media day on Wednesday, at the New York Athletic Club in midtown Manhattan. And the two seniors that he brought with him -- Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope, the only two seniors on the team this season -- are going to have to pick up the slack with Hazell now playing professionally overseas.
"These two guys are gonna have to step up, they're gonna have to have big years," said Willard. "I think Jordan and Herb both have that ability."
Pope is among the most intriguing players in the country. The 6-foot-8 power forward averaged a double-double as a junior (11.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg). But in the spring following that season, he had a major health scare -- Pope collapsed after leaving the gym one day, and ended up being diagnosed with a rare heart condition.
After surgery and a lengthy recovery, Pope ended up being cleared to play last season -- but he never was able to work himself fully back into game shape. He still averaged 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, but was a shell of his former self.
"I wouldn't even put him at 50 percent last year. ... It really is night and day how much he's improved," Willard said. "He's got his bounce back -- he really worked hard on his low-post game to be comfortable there. I expect a huge year out of him."
Pope spent seven weeks this summer working out in Houston with former NBA coach John Lucas.
"It was a blessing to even be out there [last season], and this summer I just had to work hard to get back to where I was at," Pope said.
Theodore, a 6-foot guard, is the team's leading returning scorer after averaging 11 points per game last season. Willard will likely use Theodore at both point guard and shooting guard over the course of the coming season.
"I think I'm ready to take on that leadership role," Theodore said Wednesday, "to just be that guy that my team needs -- to get that stop, to get that bucket, to get the job done."
Beyond the two seniors, Willard said that sophomore forwards Fuquan Edwin and Patrik Auda both had excellent summers and will likely be in his starting lineup. "I really think Fuquan and Patrick are gonna have to be double-digit [scoring] guys," Willard said.
And the team will have six new freshmen on the roster, some of whom will definitely see significant playing time as well.
"Everybody on the team besides me and Herb are babies," Theodore said. "But the guys are gonna be good -- they're working hard, and I'm pushing them to the limit every day. Coach is getting the most out of us, every day. Every time we step on the court, he demands 110 percent, and I think our first five practices -- I think everybody has been giving their all. I just think we gotta keep it up."
Seton Hall, which finished 12th in the 16-team Big East last season, was picked to finish 13th in this year's Big East preseason coaches' poll. Theodore said that gives the team extra motivation, and he expects the Pirates to surprise some people this season.
"I got a big chip on both of my shoulders," Theodore said. "It's not about where you start, it's where you finish."