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NCAA Tournament: Seton Hall Set to Take on Gonzaga

Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America

There was a different feel on Wednesday afternoon when the Seton Hall Pirates stepped onto the floor at the Pepsi Center in Denver to prepare one last time before their first NCAA Tournament game in a decade.

The Pirates, arguably the hottest team in the country, will take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs in their first game after defeating the Villanova Wildcats to win the Big East Tournament Championship.

“I think it’s taken us a couple days to get over the Big East championship,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said. “We’ve had the late game Thursday, Friday, then Saturday ended at 11:00 p.m. We woke up Sunday, it was Selection Sunday. That was a late day because we didn’t get selected till late. We traveled out here on Monday. I thought Tuesday and Wednesday was the first couple days where we looked back to normal. We practiced really good.”

Sophomore point guard Isaiah Whitehead has led the way offensively for the Pirates averaging 18.4 points per game to go along with four rebounds and five assists. Whitehead helped lead the Pirates to their first Big East Tournament title in 23 years, scoring 26 points in the final against the No. 1 seeded Villanova. Whitehead was also named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

“It’s been tremendous so far,” the Brooklyn native said. “But I can speak for all of us. I know that we just can’t wait to get out there and compete at a high level. We worked all season for this, to just be in the position we are now. We just got to take advantage of it.”

Along with Whitehead will be another Brooklyn native in Khadeen Carrington. Carrington averages 14 points per game and was named to the All-Big East Tournament First Team.

With Whitehead and Carrington leading the way, Seton Hall sure will be a tough out.

The Pirates also have an all around threat in senior Derrick Gordon. Gordon will appear in his third NCAA Tournament with his third different team and has been a leader for the Pirates in the locker room.

“It’s a great experience,”Gordon said. “Good to be back. Just getting out here early with these guys, getting adjusted to the breathing and everything. It’s been great so far. My guys are ready to go.”

The Pirates will face a Gonzaga team that has not played since clinching an NCAA Tournament birth for the 18th-straight season with an 85-75 victory over St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament title game.

The Zags are coming off an Elite Eight run last year, which is currently tied for the best tournament performance in program history.

The Bulldogs are led by Kyle Wiltjer who ranked among the top-20 scorers in the country averaging 20.7 points per game this season. Wiltjer was also the conferences leading scorer.

Along side the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer will be sophomore Damontas Sabonis who averages 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-11 Sabonis will definitely look to be a thorn in the side of the Pirates.

“Wiltjer and Sabonis are two of the better big-guy combos I’ve seen in a long time in college basketball,” Willard said. “We’ve explained it to Angel and Mike and Ish. It’s like playing the grown unpredictable version of Ellenson and Fischer (Marquette). Just because you have a redshirt senior, they’re a little bit more mature. Wiltjer is a little more mature.”

Willard will look at Ish Sanogo and Angel Delgado to help the Pirates slow down Gonzaga’s “big two.”

“It’s the same. It’s the same thing (as playing Marquette),”Delgado said. ”They big guys. They got a lot of skills. I just got to play tough and play hard, man. That’s how you win the battle all the time. You got to be tough and play hard.”

The Pirates are 1-0 all-time against the Zags beating them 92-70 in 1954.

It has been a long time since a Seton Hall team has stepped foot on a floor in uniform with the center logo representing the NCAA Tournament, but for the Pirates, they are ready to go.

“Just stay composed,” Gordon said. ”It’s going to be up and down. That’s why they call it March Madness. Whether we go up or they go up, we got to stay composed. It’s very easy to talk to these guys and these guys listen. I’m really sure we’ll go out there and we’ll take care of business.”

First round tip is at 9:57 p.m. ET.

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