“You writers, write this down,” said the Seton Hall fan, long after the band had packed up their trumpets and flutes, and security’s suggestions to exit Madison Square Garden became a bit firmer.
“This team, Seton Hall, is going to the Final Four,” pantomiming fingers on a keyboard as he climbed the steps leaving courtside.
Seton Hall is arguably the hottest team in the country, its peak coinciding with the Big East tournament and wins over Creighton Thursday night and a season-defining victory in the semifinals versus fifth-ranked Xavier, 87-83.
Though the final score was close, Seton Hall was the aggressor for much of the game. “Seton Hall did what they do to a lot of teams,” said XU coach Chris Mack. “They punked us.” From the opening tip, when Xavier’s prechosen playcall was deflected out of bounds, to the aggressiveness the Pirates showed both on the glass and in the defensive halfcourt (during the first half, SHU grabbed 47 percent of their misses, and forced the Musketeers to commit a giveaway on a whopping third of their possessions), and then answering whichever Xavier surge threatened to topple the upstarts from across the Hudson, the Pirates never lost control.
“You know they swarm, that they pride themselves on getting deflections, [and] their ball pressure is deflection city,” said Mack.”You can’t run good offense that way.”
Overall, the Musketeers scored just 0.94 points per possession, well below the their offensive efficiency rate throughout conference play (1.10 PPP). The Musketeers tried all sorts of lineup combinations — their standard small-ball with Trevon Bluiett at the 4, one tailor-made for the 1-3-1 with James Farr and Jalen Reynolds, a smattering of Kaiser Gates and Sean O’Mara — it didn’t matter.
Seton Hall’s defense has been one of the least praised storylines during this season’s league play — the squad has held opponents to just 0.97 PPP since February began — that even though Xavier scored 1.18 PPP in the second half, the offensive flurries felt more frantic than a team composed.
After the game, Seton Hall’s star sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead was the main storyline. “Isaiah Whitehead is the best player in the league,” said Mack. “Put that down. He is the real deal. I voted for him [for Big East player of the year]. He is strong, he has grown up, he can pass, he defends. He is the real deal.” Whenever Seton Hall needed a bucket, Whitehead delivered. Some of his shots were ludicrous, long-range bombs that might give Steph Curry a slight pause, while others were whirling and ferocious drives to the bucket that only the athletically-gifted 6’4” Whitehead could make.
But without star performances from Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, and Ish Sanogo, who guarded Bluiett whenever on the floor and held the Musketeer wing to only 15 points, using his length and speed to keep Bluiett from ever feeling comfortable, SHU isn’t playing Saturday afternoon against Villanova. Delgado had 15 points, and when asked during the post-game press conference whether establishing the 6’6” sophomore early in the game was intentional, Willard kept it brief, “Really important.”
Carrington is sidekick to Whitehead’s spotlight, a player that, from high school to college, has always ceded the top spot to his long-time friend, but the sophomore guard has spent much of 2016 fine-tuning his role. He can be a caretaker of the offense, but when needed, he can explode — like 23 points and a trio of threes versus Xavier. “We’re a very close knit team, and probably too close knit at times,” said Willard. “But I know I wouldn’t want to play [these] five guys out there on the court.”
So now the Pirates play a team that has been their bugbear all season. Daniel Ochefu, Nova’s center, has continually hampered SHU, but with a bum ankle limiting Ochefu during the evening slate’s first semifinal, Seton Hall might finally have stumbled on the rare combination of heady play and luck. But they also might not have needed it — the Pirates that entered the South Orange school a year ago to unreal expectations are finally following through. “Last year we were puppies,” said Willard. “And we’re now starting to turn into dogs.”