Monday, March 13, 2017

For Seton Hall, a sense of unfinished business awaits in NCAA Tournament

Seton Hall watches intently from head coach Kevin Willard's home as NCAA Tournament bracket reveals Pirates will face Arkansas in opening round Friday. (Photo by Thomas Chen/Seton Hall University Athletics)

Compared to last season, there was little fanfare or celebration for Seton Hall's return to the NCAA Tournament, but that was exactly how the Pirates wanted it.

Eschewing a public watch party that accompanied last year's Big East championship and first trip to the big dance since 2006 in favor of a more intimate gathering at head coach Kevin Willard's home, Seton Hall learned their fate and went about their business of preparing for the next matter on the agenda.

"The guys are really comfortable here, they come here a lot," Willard said of the decision to host Sunday evening's private affair, one that saw the Pirates (21-11) ticketed for a Friday afternoon Round of 64 matchup against Arkansas in Greenville, South Carolina, tipping off at 1:30 p.m. "I think last year was more celebrating the Big East championship. This year, the way the year played out and as much of a grind as it was to get to where we got, these guys just wanted a nice night with themselves and with their teammates."

Seeded ninth in the South Regional, Seton Hall meets an Arkansas squad that is equal parts offensively gifted and physically imposing on the defensive end. The Razorbacks (25-9) possess four players averaging double-figure point totals, and shoot 36 percent as a team from three-point range. Head coach Mike Anderson, notorious for his "40 Minutes of Hell" philosophy that he learned under former Arkansas coach and national champion Nolan Richardson, also employs a deeper bench than the Pirates have been accustomed to. Nine Razorbacks average more than 11 minutes per game. 

The Friday-Sunday regional lineup in the Eastern time zone is a far cry from the slight that the Pirates received last season, when they were sent to Denver in a late Thursday tipoff against Gonzaga. And while it is easy to look ahead to a possible second-round meeting with No. 1 seed North Carolina, Willard is focusing strictly on the first task at hand, and has ingrained the same mentality in his players, many of whom have a greater understanding of what is at stake compared to this time twelve months prior.

"Playing on Friday gives us another day of preparation," Willard said in a Sunday conference call, audibly satisfied with the hand his team was dealt. "I think staying on the East Coast is exciting. It lets much more fans be able to get to it."

"The positive of winning the Big East championship last year and being 3-6 and having our backs against the wall, we really took a Game 7 mentality into every game this year, without looking ahead," he admitted, refuting the notion of overlooking Friday's battle with Arkansas and getting distracted by the thought of meeting the Tar Heels. "We didn't look at Villanova (February 18) because we were purely focused on Creighton (February 15), and I think that's why we won eight of our last ten. This team understands the importance of just here and now, and you better focus on Arkansas."

Another benefit to having an additional day before tipping off the Round of 64 is that it allows Seton Hall to get defensive specialist Ismael Sanogo back to full health. The junior forward, who had been battling an ankle sprain suffered at DePaul on February 25, reaggravated the injury in Friday's Big East tournament semifinal loss against Villanova, and would obviously be aided by as much extra rest as possible.

"He looked great," said Willard of Sanogo and his effort Friday before tweaking the ankle late in the second half. "I think he's started to get some of his bounce back, and an extra day of rest for him will really help, because the more time and rest you can get with an ankle, the better."

The journey on which the Pirates have traveled over the past two seasons, beginning in the summer of 2015; when Willard entered the season on the hot seat after the much-chronicled discord between players and the rift that led to a downward spiral that saw Jaren Sina leave the program, only to see the maturation of Isaiah Whitehead and the sophomore class that is now a junior class resurrect The Hall and reach the summit last March has transformed the program and given it not only new life, but a new impression to leave in their wake. With it, a take-no-quarter, receive-none identity has been forged in the process. This is a Seton Hall team that brings their lunch pail to the office and puts in more than their share of work to further themselves, a characteristic that will be no different this weekend in Greenville.

"It hasn't been an easy journey, but it's still a lot of hard work, mostly by this group of players," said Willard with a fair share of pride evident in his inflection. "They've come here and they've bought into what we wanted to do and the culture we've tried to create, and they've put in hours and hours and hours of work. They've had a very strong belief in me, in the university, and each other. They're the reason why we've been able to do this. We're a blue-collar group. We go to work every day and we try to outwork people. That's just who we are."

Returning to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament is nothing to sneeze at, and the Pirates are not resting on their laurels. Having been there last season and come up short, the realization of what it takes to win has since magnified, and there is a greater commitment from both players and coach to pull out all the stops in earning what would be Seton Hall's first victory on this stage since defeating Arizona in 2004.

"They have a much calmer sense about them," Willard said, offering a glimpse into a hardened and locked-in unit. "They're playing for a chance to win a national championship, and I don't really think that sunk into them last year before the tournament. I could tell by their attitude that they have a much better sense of what's coming at them."

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