Sunday, February 28, 2016

Seton Hall 90, Xavier 81: JP's 4 Thoughts

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

When you have a legitimate top-5 team coming into your building, you never know how the team or the fans will react. Will they be intimidated by a supremely-talented and deep squad across the floor? Will they rise to the challenge? If it comes down to the wire, will the nerves set in?

In resounding fashion, Seton Hall sent Derrick Gordon out a winner in an emotional Senior Day win over Xavier on Sundayafternoon at the Prudential Center by a final score of 90-81. It was an entertaining game, sure, but an impressive win for the Pirates as they led wire-to-wire and truly shocked the Musketeers with a near-perfect first half after which they were up by 19 points.

Here are the thoughts from the biggest win for the program (all things considered) in a decade:

1. Dominant Desi

Desi Rodriguez has had his ups and downs. When he plays well he is like the tide that lifts all boats, buoying the entire team to victory. When he doesn't, the lows have been just as low. The bouncy forward played the best game of his career against Xavier, slashing and shooting and jamming his way to a career-best 27 points as the #5 team in the nation had no answer for him. He shot 9-16 from the floor and 8-10 from the free throw line, adding 12 rebounds and three assists. He had a couple more signature #DunkinDesi moments, but it was his one-man fast-break bucket with just under 12 minutes left that stabilized the Pirates after Xavier had managed to climb back within 13. His three pointer as the fourth in a stretch of four straight threes with 5:39 remaining pushed the lead up to 19 points and basically put the game out of reach.

He did it on both ends of the floor, swooping in for tough defensive rebounds in a game where you had to have extreme toughness to get on the glass. Best game he's played as a Pirate, and MVP of this game, bar-none.

2. Frontcourt Force

It wasn't just Desi. Angel Delgado scored 13 of his 17 points in the first half as Seton Hall absolutely crushed Xavier inside in the opening stanza. They staunchly held the Musketeers to 27 percent shooting in the first 20 minutes and against one of the best and most-athletic frontcourts in the Big East and the nation (Xavier entered the contest in the top-15 in rebounding margin in the nation at plus-8.2), it was Seton Hall doing the damage. 

Seton Hall out-rebounded the Musketeers 28-18 in the first half, outscored them in the paint 24-14 and turned 10 offensive rebounds into a remarkable second-chance points. They punched Xavier in the mouth and then kept on coming despite Xavier looking more like Xavier in the second half. That's what makes this win even more impressive- that they got it is huge, but the way they got it was amazing.

3. Honoring Derrick Gordon

The Pirates got to honor senior guard Derrick Gordon before the game, and let me tell you it was a sight to behold. This is a kid who was on his third college in four seasons, who came out as the first gay athlete in NCAA Division-1 basketball, coming to a Catholic university (and surprising some folks in doing so). From Day 1, Gordon has handled himself with class regarding his situation- never backing down from questions about himself while also keeping not only himself but as it turns out the rest of the team hyper-focused on what he came here to do- play basketball. 

A tremendous defender to put it lightly, Gordon's been the key for Seton Hall's defensive dominance this season. Kevin Willard has said so repeatedly and anyone with eyes can tell as well. He's the best Seton Hall perimeter defender since Paul Gause stopped making life miserable for some of the Big East's best guards, but what has struck me is how much Seton Hall fans have embraced him as their own. It's true that fans love players who play hard, but they've taken it to a whole other level with Gordon. There were 5,000 fans at least already in their seats to give him a standing ovation during the Senior Day festivities. Then, when he was introduced in the starting lineups (at the end, no less), they stood and cheered AGAIN.

That's something I have not seen this fanbase do for anyone since I started out as a student in 2008. You may have to go back to Andre Barrett for a player so beloved by the Pirate faithful, and that is saying something. After the game, they gave him a Gatorade bath in the locker room. The whole thing has been incredible to watch over the course of this season and after the win today, many feel that Seton Hall has punched their ticket to the Big Dance. 

If so, that would make Gordon the first in something else- making the NCAA Tournament with three different schools. That would truly cement his legacy at Seton Hall. And again, this has happened over the course of just one year.

4. Big Dance?

Seton Hall still has two games and one more week until the Big East Tournament and those two are doozies (at Butler, at DePaul). I think that thanks to a signature win now on their resume along with 21 wins overall, a high RPI and 11 Big East wins along with a nice non-conference slate, Seton Hall will hear their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time in a decade. To really cement their status, beating DePaul and possibly even Butler (the Pirates' worst matchup still after three seasons) would make them a lock.

I can understand being gun-shy after what happened in 2012 (heck, I saw it firsthand). But again- this team is different. The 2012 team did not have the overall resume that this year's team. Do they pass the "eye test?" You bet, especially if you like defense. Are they rolling down the stretch of the season? Yup- winners of 8 of their last 9, the Pirates are one of the hottest teams in the Big East. Do they have the wins, both in quantity and quality? Absolutely. Have they had a "bad loss?" Depends on what you think of Long Beach State.

I'll put it another way- you cannot find me 66 teams in the NCAA that are better than Seton Hall. 

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