Wednesday in Denver officially kicked off a March Madness ride the Pirates have been without for the last decade.
Guards Isaiah Whitehead and Derrick Gordon, plus forward Angel Delgado and eventually, head coach Kevin Willard were made available to media before hitting the court for a 45 minute open practice session in the Pepsi Center.
The three Pirates who have helped propel this young team to the Big Dance sat on stage in front of national media with a look of elation slapped across their faces.
Will Whitehead’s hot streak continue? The sophomore sensation has been playing on an otherworldly level as of late. He was the main reason the Pirates won their first Big East Tournament since 1993. Over the past seven games Whitehead’s numbers resemble a line Dwyane Wade used to throw up in his prime – 25.3 points per game, 5.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds. I dare you to find me a hotter player in college basketball right now. Look for the Brooklyn boy to continue his rip.
Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis are really good.. But so are Ismael Sanogo and Angel Delgado. The Gonzaga big men dictate the success of the Bulldogs on the court. Wiltjer is a 6’10” forward with range – he’s hit at a 42% clip from deep this season. And Sabonis is a legitimate NBA block talent, averaging 17.4 points and 11.6 boards a game. Sanogo will be locked on Wiltjer, most likely following him around the court draped on him like a blanket. If Delgado can avoid foul trouble to neutralize Sabonis the Pirates have the chance to put this game away early. But, if Delgado and Sanogo find themselves with some quick whistles, the Pirates could be looking a long night.
Gonzaga’s perimeter defense looks tough to crack. The Zags defend the deep ball at a 29% clip. The Pirates shoot the three as a team at 35% for the season. More importantly, since conference play began, Whitehead is shooting from range at 42.6%. Seton Hall needs to be able to penetrate and kick to the open man from beyond the arc. They began their open practice session Wednesday night with four straight three point shooting drills.
For no tournament appearance in 10 years, these Pirates are feeling no pressure.. Seriously, for most of the kids on this team – with the exception of Gordon – nobody has any tournament experience. Yet, nobody seems to care. At the press conference, all three Pirates were laughing and smiling, continuously saying they just want to hit the court and ball. They’re here in Denver looking relaxed and ready to prove everyone wrong.. Again.
Isaiah Whitehead on the tournament atmosphere: “It’s been tremendous so far. But I can’t speak for all of us. I know that we just can’t wait to get out there tomorrow 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.”
Derrick Gordon on his postseason experience: “Just stay composed. 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.”
Whitehead on the Sanogo/Wiltjer matchup: “He’s a tremendous defender. He’s always up for a challenge. He’s battled with some of the best players in the Big East, All-Conference, definitely non-conference of who we played. I think he’s one of the most underrated defenders in the country. He just really gets after it. I think that helped him during the season to look forward to playing against Kyle.”
Gordon on his sexuality and irrelevance it has on the game: “No, I don’t have anything to prove to nobody. The story has been out since 2014, so it shouldn’t be a story as it is. My teammates know. Everybody knows. There’s no pressure at all. It’s just me going out there and knowing what I know how to do.”
Whitehead on Gordon as a team leader: “I mean, he brings out emotion. He brings everything. He just picks us up when we’re down. We’re a real young group. He’s the lone senior on the team. He really helps us in a lot of different ways. Missing shots, getting back on defense, every little thing he helps us with. He really helped us since he got here in the summertime.”
Willard on stopping Sabonis and Wiltjer: “We’ve explained it to Angel and Mike and Ish. It’s like playing the grown unpredictable version of Ellenson and Fischer. Just because you have a redshirt senior, Sabonis is a sophomore obviously. They’re a little bit more mature. Wiltjer is a little more mature. Ellenson shoots it a little better from the outside. Sabonis is so skilled. He’s a tough guy to double because he passes the ball so quickly out of the post. Most big guys don’t do a good job of passing it. He does a great job of passing it.”
Dennis is a senior at Seton Hall and is a part of the Setonian team, you can follow him @DennisChambers_