South Orange thought it was a drought.
Well, for 10 years, it was. But not anymore.
The men’s basketball team will be headed to Denver, Co., for Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament after they busted through top seeds Villanova and Xavier on their way to a Big East Tournament championship. It was their first in 23 years.
To end their NCAA Tournament hiding act, the Pirates drew the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region, where their first round opponent will be a tournament main stay, No. 11-seeded Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs – who finished their season 26-7 – are led by a couple of NBA-level front-court players in Kyle Witljer and Domantas Sabonis. Witljer, a senior, averages 20.7 points per game to go with 6.5 boards per. But the forward transfer – who spent his freshman season at Kentucky – does his damage from deep, shooting 42 percent.
Sabonis, who is projected to go 13th-overall in this upcoming NBA draft by NBADraft.net, likes to work from the block. The 6-foot, 11-inch big from Lithuania averages 17.4 points per game and 11.6 rebounds a contest.
Pirate guard Khadeen Carrington sees talent in Gonzaga but said he isn’t worried about his team’s confidence for SHU’s first tournament game in a decade.
“There’s a bunch of great players on Villanova,” Carrington said about momentum from beating the Wildcats carrying his team. “Just like Gonzaga, but once you beat a team like that, we feel like we can beat anybody.”
To combat the lethal front-court of Gonzaga, Seton Hall boasts a combination of some of the nation’s best guards. Leading the pack is consensus First-Team Big East player Isaiah Whitehead. He is arguably the nation’s hottest player right now, averaging 25.3 points, 5.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game over his last seven games. For the season Whitehead averages 18.4, 5.0, and 3.6 in those categories, respectively.
His backcourt mate, Carrington, averages 14.3 points per game and is riding a hot streak of his own, dropping about 18 points a contest through the Big East Tournament.
Frontcourt defensive stalwart for the Pirates Ismael Sanogo is usually fitted to guard the opposition’s top threat. That will be Wiltjer. In a conference call Tuesday from Denver, Sanogo addressed his impending matchup.
“He’s (Wiltjer) a lot older than (Marquette’s) Henry Ellenson, so he probably has a few tricks up his sleeve,” he said.
Sanogo added how he views the Bulldogs as a whole, saying “to me they look like a better Marquette team.” The versatile forward shutdown Ellenson – another NBA talent – in two Pirate wins over the Golden Eagles.
It has taken the Hall a decade to get back to the Big Dance, and while Gonzaga poses as a formidable opponent, Whitehead isn’t going to be content leaving Denver without a victory.
“We’re a tough team, we get after it defensively and we’re gonna try and get this win by any means necessary.”
Dennis Chambers can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DennisChambers_.