Angel Delgado leads Seton Hall back to Madison Square Garden, where it hopes to repeat as Big East champions this week. (Photo by Newsday)
NEW YORK -- Last year, Seton Hall entered the Big East Tournament firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture, and rode a hot streak to the program's first conference championship since 1993.
This time around, they once again arrive with their standing in the field of 68 likely secure after Saturday's crucial win at Butler, but are playing for seeding as they begin the final stage of their title defense, which begins Thursday afternoon against Marquette.
"You're playing in the greatest college basketball tournament that there is, in the greatest arena in the country," head coach Kevin Willard remarked when asked about a team mindset as the fifth-seeded Pirates (20-10, 10-8 Big East) square off with No. 4 seed Marquette at 2:30 p.m. in a quarterfinal matchup at Madison Square Garden. "Your mindset is to get prepared for Marquette, and Marquette only. It's a special tournament, it's a special place, so you've got to be prepared."
In the Golden Eagles, Seton Hall faces a team they completed their season series against rather early in the conference schedule, having not seen Marquette since beginning what turned out to be a winless three-game road trip on January 11. A lot has changed for both teams since then, and Willard was recognizant of that when sizing up his team's opposition.
"They're just playing terrific basketball," he assessed of Steve Wojciechowski's roster. "Their tempo has really increased since the first two times we saw them. Markus Howard is a tremendous young guard who's going to be a special player in this conference. You just don't know who's going to get you. (Andrew) Rowsey is playing great, I think Katin Reinhardt could have gotten the Sixth Man of the Year award just as much as anybody else, and then you obviously have two great players in (Jajuan) Johnson and (Luke) Fischer, who I think are playing the best basketball of their career."
With that said, the Pirates have their work cut out for them on the defensive end in stopping a high-scoring Marquette team that has topped the 90-point plateau in three of their last four contests, and may have to do so without Ismael Sanogo. Seton Hall's junior stopper has been battling a sprained ankle that was reaggravated last week at DePaul, and the New York Post's Zach Braziller reported on Wednesday that he would be a game-time decision. If Sanogo is limited or unable to go, the presence of Angel Delgado; a unanimous first team All-Big East selection, becomes even more valuable for the reigning champions.
"I wish I knew," said Wojciechowski when asked about how to shut Delgado down. "He's the best big man in the United States. I'm not sure if there's any guy his size that plays with more heart and determination. He's not a guy you stop. You only hope to contain him."
Delgado's legendary status in and around South Orange has already spawned a legacy of its own, enhanced by winning a championship inside Madison Square Garden, which opens its doors to the Big East for a 35th consecutive season; only this time in the shadows of the rival Atlantic Coast Conference, whose own postseason championship is being contested a mere subway ride away at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. The tradition interwoven with both the Garden and Big East has already become a topic of conversation leading up to the opening tip of Wednesday's play-in games, and Willard is a firm believer that the venue often referred to as the Mecca of college basketball truly is as good as it gets.
"I've always said that Madison Square Garden is the heartbeat of New York City," said Willard, who competed in the Big East Tournament at Pitt before beginning his coaching career. "When you're in New York City, there's a great vibe and I think it all starts from the greatness that is Madison Square Garden; the events that take place there, when you walk into the building, I always say if these walls could talk. Well, I think Madison Square Garden talks to you. You can hear the roars, the tradition. It's just a special place."