Pause, exhale and sprint.
That is very much the feeling this time of year in college basketball, as the Big East’s 10 teams wrapped up their marathon conference season on Saturday. Now comes the four-day dash that is the Big East Tournament, which begins Wednesday.
For Seton Hall, action will resume on Thursday. The Pirates rattled off a 7-2 back half of conference play to finish 10-8, good enough for a fifth-place seed and first-round bye in the tournament. The Pirates also seemingly locked up a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth after a 70-64 road win over No. 13 Butler in the regular season finale. The win came at a time when most analysts had the Pirates leaning toward safety. The bubble-bursting win also made Kevin Willard the first Pirates coach to earn back-to-back 20 win seasons since P.J. Carlesimo achieved the feat in 1993.
Despite the recent hot streak and being the reigning conference tournament champs, the Pirates are locked in. Willard, on a conference call with reporters on Monday, voiced a narrow focus on the Pirates’ quarterfinal matchup with Marquette, and nothing else.
The Pirates head coach got into the difficulties which facing Marquette presents, considering the sides have not met since early in the conference season.
“We played them almost back to back in early January. So it’s actually the first time watching film on them, and they’re just playing terrific basketball. Their tempo has really increased from the first two times we saw them,” Willard said.
Willard went on to describe how Marquette can be an infuriating team to defend because of its ability to spread the floor and then punish with penetrating drives to the basket.
“You can’t get overly spaced out on them because Jajuan Johnson will drive in on you. I just think because they’re so balanced because they’ve balanced out their offense really well, you have to try your best on them, but also have to hope they’re having an off night.”
A big part of stopping that balanced offensive attack centers on a player who is often described as the Pirates’ defensive anchor: Ismael Sanogo. Sanogo plays a crucial role in thwarting the opposition, although the forward has battled health as much as Big East opponents this past month. Willard did not show much optimism in regards to Sanogo’s availability for Marquette, saying that he is not sure what his status will be, but that it is not looking good.
If the Pirates are able to handle the challenge Marquette presents, which becomes even without Sanogo, the side would advance to face the winner of a quarterfinal match between Villanova and either St. John’s or Georgetown. The No. 1 seeded Wildcats are favored to go through, which would set the stage for a reunion at Madison Square Garden between the two finalists from last year.
Willard isn’t thinking ahead – about the Wildcats nor back to back championships – though. The Pirates head coach is putting all his attention toward the 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal match on Thursday.
“I’m not even looking at Nova. Right now we just have to worry about playing Marquette, they’re as hot as any team in the country, playing as good as any team,” he said of the Golden Eagles, who have won four of their last five. “We’re just worried about Marquette.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.