John Fanta is a Seton Hall Alumni who now is a Fox Sports play-by-play broadcaster. He is also the host of Big East Shootaround, where he is seen all over the Big East’s social media pages interviewing players and coaches and breaking down Big East games. Just recently he was in Madison Square Garden for all the exciting games during the Big East Tournament. I got the opportunity to ask him a few questions around the future of Seton Hall basketball, Big East storylines, and he even drops some of his March Madness picks.
Cameron Mendler: Seton Hall obviously struggled this year down the stretch, and just recently they opted out of the NIT. Do you know why they did that?
John Fanta: Yeah, they did not feel that it was right for them to bubble up for another couple of weeks for essentially a trophy that doesn’t mean enough to them to go down to Texas and risk things with COVID-19. This really came down to fatigue. These kids are getting tested every morning at 7 and then doing everything they need to do as student athletes and I think to go all the way down to Texas and play in the National Invitational Tournament, which is the backseat to the NCAA [Tournament], I just don’t think it made sense. If they were a program that had not been to a postseason in a while, then I would sit here and say they should play in it. But when you’ve been to five NCAA tournaments [in a row], or you would’ve been [without the cancelation of the tournament last year], it didn’t make sense for them to go down there. It came down to the amount that they’ve had to do to preserve health and safety combined with the fact that you go down to Texas to compete for a trophy that really doesn’t mean a whole lot to Seton Hall at this point where the program is at.
CM: Next year Seton Hall has some solid players returning and some solid recruits, a 4-star (Brandon Weston) and two 3-stars (Tyler Powell and Ryan Conway). How does next year look and can they find their way back into the tournament?
JF: I think they can, and I think that Jared Rhoden is going to be their star and he showed us that he’s more than capable of doing that in the big east tournament. You’ve got to be able to have that moment where it hits and say, “I can be that guy for my team next year.” He was the guy for Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament. When Sandro Mamukelashvili got shut down by Georgetown’s defense, how were they going to be able to respond and they did. It was through Jared Rhoden. So, I think when you combine that with the fact that they had a lot of youth this year, guys still carving out their role, I think that Tyrese Samuel needs a normal offseason of development because I think he has some untapped potential, but Kevin Willard’s got to continue to find it. I think Ike Obiagu coming back is only good for Seton Hall because when you have a 7-footer on your team, you can create a matchup problem. The biggest thing for this team is are they going to be able to generate enough offense consistently. They’re welcoming in Brandon Weston, a wing, and Ryan Conway, a point guard, who are going to be expected to come in and contribute. They have got to find a transfer or two this offseason to try and make that push to the NCAA tournament. You’ve got to be able to find some kids with experience, particularly some NCAA tournament experience, that can win you games down the stretch. Rhoden’s one of those guys, but losing Mamu and Cale, who have been through the ringer and understand what it takes to win is tough. It comes down to getting a transfer or two and identifying who that is. They got one in Aiken, but it didn’t work out. There’s no reason why they can’t get another one. Kevin Willard’s done it in the past with Quincy McKnight and others.
CM: You mentioned needing a transfer, Earl Timberlake, who is a former 4-Star recruit who considered Seton Hall before committing to Miami, just recently announced he is transferring. He doesn’t have the experience but potential wise do you think he could impact Seton Hall if he chooses to go there?
JF: I would expect Kevin [Willard] to be in dialog with Earl’s people and I think he absolutely could. The thing about recruiting is that you might get the opportunity elsewhere like Timberlake, who saw something that would fit over Seton Hall at that moment but kind of like the Aiken situation, when you get recruited by a coach, if the coach does it correctly, which Kevin and his staff have done so you always keep that relationship. It’s always kept there that if in the event in which the recruiting gets reopened, you’re able to start right where you left off and that’s the advantage that Willard and his staff have. Here’s the other thing, they had the opportunity to say to Earl, “We’ve won. You were at a Miami program that doesn’t win, and we do know how to win. You can come here and win, and you can come here and get playing time.” I look at a couple of different things that they have going for them and I fully expect them to be in on Timberlake.
BREAKING from me and @DraftExpress: Miami freshman Earl Timberlake plans to transfer, he tells ESPN.
Timberlake was a projected first-round pick before dealing with injuries all season. Immediately becomes a top available transfer.https://t.co/Od8t42dnc3
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 14, 2021
CM: You were at every Big East Tournament game. Did it feel like a typical Big East Tournament or did it feel vastly different because of the pandemic?
JF: Patrick Ewing made it feel like the Big East Tournament all by himself because he pulled off one of the most magical runs in the conference’s history. But it did not feel normal though. I’m used to seeing the different fan bases and getting stopped in the media room from people who are pumped up for it. It’s not the same without people in the stands. The Madison Square Garden walls do their best. You could still feel something magical though. An event that was basically empty, and you could still feel a magic to it and I’m sure people at home still felt this magic to it which says a lot about it. It was not even close to the same, and I hope it’s the last time we ever have to do that. The Big East tournament is about the fans and the fans not being there to see Patrick Ewing win in the Garden again was a shame.
CM: Speaking of Georgetown, they pulled off the magical run to win the Big East. What was the key for the Hoyas last weekend?
JF: Defense. They have allowed 63 ppg over their last 11 games while winning 9 of their last 11. They’ve really found themselves on the defensive end of the ball. They’re going to need that for their matchup against Colorado in the first round of the tournament. I think for Georgetown, their keys are defense and Chudier Bile, a transfer out of Northwestern State. He’s been starting and gives them a toughness needed to win. He can take them out of some games with bad shots but Chudier is aggressive, and he has to be aggressive this time of the year. I think the biggest thing with Georgetown this year is their point guard. Mac Mclung and James Akinjo transferred, but a three-star recruit, Dante Harris, has put this team on their back. I’ve never seen someone emerge like this. He was not on the all Big East freshman team and now he’s the Big East tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Patrick Ewing climbs the ladder pic.twitter.com/5emgtQq00S
— John Fanta (@John_Fanta) March 14, 2021
CM: We touched on Patrick Ewing earlier, during the tournament he mentioned he was asked for credentials in MSG. Was that as big a deal as it was made out to be?
JF: No, he was being sarcastic. He was not being serious, and it got blown out of proportion by the media because it became a nice clickbait story. Patrick loves the Garden, and he loves the Knicks and the Knicks love him back. His jersey is in the rafters. Yes, he had an incident while checking into the building, but he was making light about it. It wasn’t him saying, “Fire that person.” Patrick Ewing would never mean to diminish the Garden or the Knicks and he wasn’t doing that.
CM: Another controversial topic around the Big East and their coaches was Greg McDermott’s racial comment toward his players. Do you think the timing of this comment with both tournaments being a week away impacted the school’s decision not to suspend him?
JF: Absolutely, the timing is a nightmare. The timing made it a more difficult situation. There is never a time for those comments. I still can’t believe Greg McDermott made that comment. This program has represented the fight against social injustices and systemic racism and has always been about African Americans and standing for what is right. Georgetown basketball embodies this. Georgetown is more than basketball. It is a culture. Right now, they are America’s team and are everything that is right with sports. There’s no question that Greg McDermott’s comments lit a fire under Georgetown and for the program that represents standing up for social justice to come out with a Big East championship is extremely poetic.
CM: To stick in the Big East, you were calling most of the women’s Big East Tournament games, including the UCONN games. Paige Bueckers, has the social following; she is followed by KD and Kyrie, has big social media accounts displaying her highlights and I think she can help grow the women’s game exponentially. Would you agree with this?
JF: I think she can as well. It’s a great time for women’s basketball, we’ve seen Sabrina Ionescu do it with Oregon and now Paige Bueckers with UCONN and Azzi Fudd coming in next year. It’s great for the sport, she’s a compelling player, playing for one of the best coaches of all time. The thing that stands out about Paige is she handles herself like a pro. She’s very mature and that mentality carries well with NBA and WNBA players and why she’s got a great following. She’s a high-level player but she’s also a high-level person. I have been overly impressed with Paige Bueckers.
CM: March Madness is upon us. The Bracket was just recently revealed, do you see any sleepers that stick out to you for potential upsets?
JF: UC Santa Barbara is a team that I don’t think is getting a lot of attention and with the way Creighton finished this year, they’re someone to look out for. Also, in that region, Virginia won’t be arriving to Indy until Friday because of COVID issues, so the door is open for Ohio as well to pull off an upset. Ohio averages 80 ppg and have five guys in double figures. I always like a team that is capable of scoring in many ways against Tony Bennet and with Virginia in a state of uncertainty with COVID-19, keep an eye out for Ohio. I also think Oregon State can keep things going as a 12 seed. I like the way the Beavers are playing heading into the NCAA tournament and I think they are going to be a trendy pick to take down Tennessee. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Abilene Christian takes down Texas. I think Texas is a great team but Abilene Christian defends and only allows 60 ppg which tells me they can stay in the game so watch out for ACU as well.
CM: Hopefully, that does not happen because my mom picked Texas to go to the Final Four because of their logo.
JF: Your mom might be right but that’s the beauty of the tournament, you can’t predict this stuff, it’s great!
CM: I helped my mom this year fill out her bracket, do you ever help your family fill out brackets?
JF: They don’t ask me; they like to be right and prove me wrong. It’s a fun competition. I’m sure my younger brother will ask me for a couple picks though. My dad may ask. I used to do it with my grandpa all the time. I’m sure I’ll get some questions, but they’d really like to be correct while I’m wrong about a pick.
CM: I really wanted Oklahoma State and Illinois in my Final Four, but unfortunately, they would match up in the Sweet 16. Are there any teams you think that may haven’t gotten a bad draw?
JF: I thought Illinois did get a tough draw, I thought they did more than to have to play Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16. The fact that that may be a Sweet 16 game is a little bit crazy to me. Elsewhere, I mostly thought it was fair, but Michigan will have a tough second round matchup. LSU is playing at a high level; they almost took down Alabama. I could see them taking down the Wolverines in the second round. Alabama will also have tough second round matchup. UCONN is playing at a really high level, they’re tough defensively and Maryland’s tough too. The fact that Alabama will have to play one of those teams in the first weekend is tough.
CM: Finally, do you have your Final Four picks set?
- Gonzaga in the West. I can’t see them losing until the Final Four.
- Alabama in the East.
- Baylor in the South
- Oklahoma State in the Midwest. Cade Cunningham gives me Carmelo at Syracuse vibes.