Preview: #6 Seton Hall vs. #11 Gonzaga

#6 Seton Hall vs. #11 Gonzaga

The NCAA Tournament first round games begin this Thursday and Friday on a variety of networks. There are many intriguing matchups in the first round of this year’s tournament. Many of them are pale however in contrast though to the first round matchup in the Midwest region between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the Seton Hall Pirates. This is the 6-11 matchup in this region with the winner to advance to either play the 3 seed Utah or the 14 seed Fresno State. The loser’s season will be over. These first round games will be played in the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.

This matchup features two teams that are two of the hottest coming into this year’s tournament as Seton Hall, winners of the Big East tournament, have won four straight including wins over two top ten teams in Villanova and Xavier. Gonzaga, winners of the WCC Tournament and of 5 straight overall, looked very impressive in beating its two conference foes in BYU and St. Mary’s to take the WCC crown in Vegas for the fourth straight year. This game will be a contrast in styles throughout and it should be one of the more entertaining first round games. Both teams are strong defensively and very efficient offensively. The key to this game will be the frontcourt of Gonzaga, which features possible NBA lottery pick Domantas Sabonis and an outstanding scorer in senior Kyle Wiltjer versus the terrific backcourt of Seton Hall, led by future pro Isaiah Whitehead. The Pirates will look to use their athleticism and strong guard play to run the Zags out of Denver, while Gonzaga looks to lean on their big men to pull off the upset.

The X- factor to this game though may be Gonzaga’s guards and how well they play against such a talented backcourt in Seton Hall. Seton Hall is a young team that plays with no fear and their intensity goes for 40 minutes. If Gonzaga cannot match that, then they will be in for a long night. You won’t find guards like the one’s Seton Hall has in the WCC, so this will be a challenge for freshman Josh Perkins and seniors Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis to step up when it matters most for the Zags. This could be a growing up game for Josh Perkins, as the freshman has been terrific for the Zags in the last part of this season. But how well will he respond in his first ever NCAA tournament game?

Eric McClellan had an absolutely brilliant tournament in Vegas and it will be up to him to slow down Isaish Whitehead who was equally as terrific, if not better in the Big East Tournament. Whitehead has scored over 20 points in 7 straight games and he’s the kind of player that can carry his team to a Final Four. Stopping him from penetrating and making shots may be the biggest thing Gonzaga needs to do to win.  Seton Hall however will have to stop Domantas Sabonis and Wiltjer, as these two make up arguably the best frontcourt in this year’s tournament. If Wiltjer has one of those nights where he explodes and Sabonis keeps the Hall off the glass, then Gonzaga will be walk out of Denver with a first round upset.

Gonzaga really got a tough draw in this opening round, as Seton Hall could have easily been seeded as a 4 or a 5. Instead they are a 6 seed, and Gonzaga, who was probably way under seeded for a team that won their conference tournament, settled for an 11. That doesn’t take away the fact that the Zags have no pressure on them in this matchup. Seton Hall is being picked by almost every expert out there and by most people in their brackets. Gonzaga isn’t favored and that makes them dangerous heading into this game.

This is different territory for Gonzaga, as last year they were a 2 seed and they were being hunted by every lower seed. Now they are the hunter and it may make them play that much better as a result. One of these two outstanding teams will be sent home, and whoever can impose their style the best will be the one that’s left standing at the end. Whoever wins this game, will be a handful for their second opponent and they just may play their way into the second weekend.

The last thing to note is the experience of Gonzaga and the fact that Seton Hall has to travel across the country for this game. New Jersey and Colorado aren’t exactly close to one another on a map. The fact that Seton Hall is so far away may affect the way they play in this game. As a team that plays mostly sophomores and freshman, who knows how they will all perform on such a big stage for the first time. Gonzaga has three seniors in their starting lineup and a guy in Sabonis who dominated this tournament a year ago. They know what it takes to win these games and they have been here before. Also, when you take into account that the Zags are much closer to their home in Spokane, Washington, then you may have an arena full of Zag supporters and a home court advantage for the Bulldogs. No matter what happens, you can expect Seton Hall to be reared up and ready to go for this one and the Zags will have to be equally as prepared. We will see what happens on Thursday with both teams, but it looks like this one could be a classic.

 

Greg Twarozek

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