Up until Senior Night, nothing over this season has truly indicated that this veteran-led Seton Hall team is thinking about the end of the senior class’ chapter.
But perhaps the emotional send-off at Prudential Center and being knocked out of the Big East Tournament a day or two prior than anyone expected have injected some reality into this group.
Thinking back to my own college experience, the end came before I was mentally prepared, and a few notable events in the final month or two really woke me up to what was about happen.
As opposed to some people who had their eyes on their final day for several semesters. These seniors seem to fall in the former category.
“I definitely have a different sense with them this year than I have last year,” said Kevin Willard of an increased urgency from his team over the past week.
All accounts indicate that Seton Hall’s demeanor in Wichita has been workman-like and comparable to Denver in a way, although that sophomore version of this team was surely impacted by naivete and tightness.
“I think they realize the opportunity that they have now, where I think after their sophomore year they were just happy to be there.”
A year ago in South Carolina, the team was loose and perhaps even over-confident against Arkansas.
“Last year, you know, we had a chance to win the game. We were up four with a minute and a half to go, and I think that loss really hurt them,” admitted Willard. “It really kind of haunted them a little bit this year.”
But it appears this upperclassman group is doing all the right things behind closed doors in their final hour. They’re getting it.
“It’s been less me trying to get them to understand the importance of being in this tournament and how hard it is to get into this tournament. … So I think they understand now more than ever they have a chance (to win a game).”
“The biggest difference has been in practice,” continued Willard.
“We’ve been — it’s really hard this time of year when towards the end of
February you kind of wind practice down a little bit. … And then all of a sudden you have four or five days where you have to kind of start practice back up.
“And I haven’t had a hard time getting them to practice again. We practiced yesterday for almost two and a half hours, and usually — last year there’s no chance I would have been able to do that. I had no problem getting them to practice (this time).”
Turning our eyes to the other end of the court, Seton Hall is paired with a tough, balanced North Carolina State team that is more like last year’s Arkansas than 2016 Gonzaga.
Despite an early exit from the ACC tournament at the hands of Boston College that would make Wolfpack fans jealous of losing to Butler, this NCAA-green team registered 11 wins in league play and by way of upsettting North Carolina, Arizona, and Duke, proved they can play with anyone — sort of like Seton Hall.
“I think it’s a really good matchup for both teams. I think we’re both very evenly matched,” said Willard at Wednesday afternoon’s press conference at Intrust Bank Arena.
“Their guard play is some of the best guard play we’ve faced all year. Love their big guy (Omer Yurtseven), love the way he can play inside and out.”
The pre-game topic of toughness was of course mentioned after N.C. State commented on Seton Hall’s aura of physicality earlier in the day.
“Seton Hall is a pretty big team, physical,” said Wolfpack junior Torin Dorn. “Their Big East style of play is to beat you up and bruise you. It’s the contrasting styles. You know, we’re a fast team. We like to pressure you and get after it.”
“Their style is just playing physical and trying to be tough and like beat you up through the whole game,” added seven-foot Turkish import Omer Yurtseven.
The feeling of respect is mutual.
“I’ve been impressed with how physical they are. (Torin) Dorn, for a power forward, is — he’s a lot like Ish (Sanogo),” said Willard.
“He can really play defense tough off the dribble. Their guards are physical. I think they defend and get after you. And it’s a really unique matchup in the sense that both teams play physical basketball.”
“Every game is a grind-it-out game,” said Seton Hall senior Khadeen Carrington of Big East play.
“Every game goes down to the end. So we’re just going to try to impose our will on them. We know that their league is not quite as physical as us.”
To impose their will, the Hall must outlast an up-tempo Wolfpack team that ranks 41st in pace and looks inclined to force the issue defensively via on-ball pressure and other proverbial wrenches.
If you want a more in-depth look at N.C. State, Jerry Carino has you covered.
An eye test says that an opponent pressing the issue may not be the worst thing for Seton Hall — if they can avoid unnecessary turnovers and put together stops; Kevin Keatts’ team turns opponents over at the 46th-best rate in the nation.
“We know they like to press you and turn the ball over,” said Carrington, who will face the fiercest pressure as point guard.
“I think it starts with me to stay composed, just get guys in the right spots and not turn the ball over, and I’m going to try to do that tomorrow.”
Seton Hall has thrived on getting in rhythm and we’ve seen countless runs explode when they are able to get out on the break and play in a less structured setting. As opposed to someone like Cincinnati or Villanova trying to force Willard’s guys into more of an X’s and O’s half-court game.
You can’t ask for much more than a senior guard to endure the opponent’s best shot.