Now in his third NCAA Tournament, Derrick Gordon continues to serve as senior leader for a Seton Hall squad with huge upside entering Thursday's matchup with Gonzaga. (Photo courtesy of the Asbury Park Press)
Seton Hall has not made the NCAA Tournament in ten years, but that is not to say that the Pirates do not have experience at the highest level on their roster.
In fifth-year senior Derrick Gordon, Kevin Willard has someone who knows the lay of the land in March, and someone who makes history on Thursday by becoming the first Division I player to compete in three NCAA Tournaments with three different schools, when No. 6 seed Seton Hall takes on No. 11 seed Gonzaga at 9:57 p.m. in a Midwest Regional first-round game from Denver.
And for Gordon, who is the Pirates' sixth man in his final season at the collegiate level, while this year has represented a transition of sorts, that has not affected the way he has approached this team, or this stage.
"It definitely has been an adjustment," he said when asked about coming off the bench behind a starting lineup filled with several burgeoning stars in a sophomore class that has brought Seton Hall to where they currently stand. "Coming in here, starting at my past two schools, coming off the bench has definitely been an adjustment."
"I didn't really have to do as much except bringing that killer attitude and winner attitude to them," he continued. "It all started in practice, the first day I stepped on campus. They kind of followed me."
In Gordon, whose trips to the field of 68 with Western Kentucky in 2012 and UMass in 2014 mark the only NCAA Tournament background in the Seton Hall locker room, the Pirates have found a calming influence in their older compatriot, one who leads by example on and off the court as opposed to being a brash, outspoken face of the program.
"He brings out emotion," said Isaiah Whitehead; whose virtuoso performance in last week's Big East Tournament resulted in Seton Hall winning a conference championship for the first time since 1993, of Gordon. "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."
No bigger sign of Gordon's impact exists than on the defensive end, where his efforts as a lockdown defender have helped Seton Hall knock off Top 5 programs the likes of Villanova and Xavier, against the latter of whom Gordon severely limited the production of first team All-Big East guard Trevon Bluiett, the Musketeers' leading scorer. The Pirates are hoping Gordon can contribute a similar showing against Gonzaga's backcourt of Josh Perkins, Eric McClellan, and Kyle Dranginis, which will be half the battle as Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo deal with the imposing presence of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis in the paint.
"It's going to be huge," said Gordon of Seton Hall's defense, which has defined the 25-win season the Pirates are currently enjoying. "For the most part, just from watching film on them, they weren't playing as aggressive as we do. That's something we were focusing on in practice these past couple days. We've got to go out there and throw the first punch."
Gordon's experience comes into play even more Thursday, considering that his younger teammates have never been tested at this level, coupled with the thin air and high altitude of Denver, something head coach Kevin Willard attempted to acclimate his team to by flying out from New Jersey Monday evening. Regardless, the elder statesman of the locker room imparted a simple message leading up to their moment of truth.
"Just stay composed," he told his teammates. "That's why they call it March Madness. Whether we go up or they go up, we've 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."