After Seton Hall squeaked by St. John's at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, they came into a pair of home games against ranked teams starting on Thursday night against a Providence team that they had beaten on the road early in the conference season and featuring projected NBA first-round pick Kris Dunn.
Well, Providence took the lead at 2-0, but that was the only lead they would have all night as Seton Hall road a tremendous defense and an equally tremendous performance from Isaiah Whitehead to a semi-rout by a final score of 70-52. The win (the 7th in the last 8 for the Hall) pushed their record to 20-7, 10-5 in Big East play. It is the first time that they achieved 20 regular season wins and 10 in the Big East since 2003-04.
Final thoughts from the game in front of a little over 8,000 in Newark:
1. The Prophet Returns
After Whitehead shot 1-12 against the Red Storm, he put that so far behind him with his overall game tonight that it also disappeared from the minds of all Pirate fans. He showed it was merely a blip in his otherwise otherworldly past month of games, scoring 25 points with six rebounds, nine assists and four blocked shots on 8-12 shooting, nailing 5-8 from long distance. He continued to play like a first-team all-conference player and a couple of his assists tonight left the fans in awe. After the game, head coach Kevin Willard complimented how he's grown into a great point guard as the season has gone on, and he's absolutely right- the biggest question entering this season was how well Whitehead could transition into being "the guy" with the ball in his hands on offense. He's now answered that question resoundingly (and had an audience of 14 NBA scouts in the building to witness it).
2. Momentum Swing
Although Seton Hall came out swinging with a great effort in the first half, they committed 11 first-half turnovers that kept the cold-shooting (28% for the game) Friars in things as the contest approached halftime. Despite Whitehead's individual brilliance, the Hall was also not shooting well. With 30 seconds left, the game turned around in a big way for the Pirates. First, Derrick Gordon got Seton Hall the ball by taking a charge on Kris Dunn. Whitehead then went up the floor with seven seconds left and canned a three over two defenders at the buzzer. That doubled the Seton Hall lead to six points at the break, with the shift in momentum so great that it carried over into the second half when he Hall ballooned the lead out to 20 points after about eight minutes of play (thanks to Khadeen Carrington heating up alongside Whitehead with Providence missing their next 14 shots from the field overall). It changed the whole tenor of the game.
3. Bentil Bounced
But then Ben Bentil got white-hot in quite a hurry. He personally led Providence on a 16-5 run after it was 52-32 at the under-12 timeout in the second half, eventually ending up with more than half of the Friars' points (31, although he too was inefficient like the rest of the visitors, with a 10-27 performance from the floor). Seton Hall was able to stem the tide a little with a couple baskets inside to stabilize things, but the final nail in the coffin for PC was when Bentil hacked Desi Rodriguez up high near the basket. The collision resulted in a flagrant-2 foul on Bentil, ejecting the likely most-improved player in the conference from the game, and Providence (whose star scoring guard was a bit under the weather) did not score a single point thereafter (4:56).
4. Not Quite Dunn
Providence star Kris Dunn finished with just eight points on 4-12 shooting from the floor with no assists and 3 turnovers. It was a most un-Dunn-like performance, and reportedly he was under the weather with some kind of bug. That seems to be a good explanation as it was his first game played without an assist since January of 2013 as well as probably his worst statistical game of the season. Credit Seton Hall's defense for once again (led by Gordon and Whitehead) making him look ordinary, but even the Pirates acknowledged that it was not the same guy who will likely be a first-rounder in the NBA Draft this June.
5. Nearly There
At 20-7 and 10-5 in the Big East, there's a lot that Seton Hall as a candidate for the NCAA Tournament has going for it. It's their first 20-win regular season in 12 years (and just their second since the days of PJ Carlesimo) and double-digit conference wins in this year's Big East is certainly an accomplishment. Most bracketologists still have the Pirates near the bubble, but as Isaiah Whitehead said afterwards, "if we keep winning games, there's no way they can't put us in." As such, the Pirates seem to be headed in the right direction as long as they avoid the dreaded "bad loss." They are in pretty good shape no matter what happens on Sunday against top-5 Xavier, but an upset win over the Musketeers would eliminate any doubt whatsoever on Selection Sunday. Even with all their success this year, their best three wins are Providence (twice, and the Friars have slipped in recent weeks) and Wichita State. They had a chance to get a signature win over Villanova at home, but couldn't close the deal.
Kevin Willard said that he doesn't think about it, but the players definitely do, and they will be chomping at the bit at the chance they have on Sunday against a legit Musketeer squad that they played pretty tough earlier this year. It seems to be all falling into place for a team that seems to get even more fun to watch each game. Xavier is tough, deep and talented, so for the Pirates to pull it off on Sunday, they'll have to once again play well defensively (they are now 16-0 when allowing less than 70 points and 20-0 when leading by as many as seven points at any point in a game). My gut says that this Pirates team is up for the task.