6. Seton Hall (25-8, 12-6/Big East)–Forgive college hoops fans if they didn’t give Seton Hall the benefit of the doubt until the Big East tournament–that’s what years of futility in a stacked conference will do for you. But these Pirates are finally for real–as they proved during their roughshod run through Madison Square Garden en route to their first Big East title in 23 years.
Seton Hall is led by 6-4 sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead, who’s averaging 18.2 points and 5.1 assists per game. He had 20, 24, and 26 in the team’s three wins over Creighton, Xavier and Villanova in New York. 6-3 sophomore Khadeen Carrington (14.6 ppg) can also go off, like he did against Xavier (27 points). 6-6 sophomore forward Desi Rodriguez (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) is also a threat inside, and speedy senior Derrick Gordon (7.9 ppg) needs to be checked, too.
The Pirates are 12-2 in their last 14 games, and have gone from an NCAA bubble team to a trendy pick to make a deep run in the tournament. They’ve already made program history this season, but head coach Kevin Willard isn’t satisfied with a Big East title.
11. Gonzaga (26-7, 15-3/WCC)–It wouldn’t have been right if Gonzaga, which has reached the tournament in 17 straight seasons, had been left out of this year’s dance. Sure, the Zags don’t have a plethora of signature wins, but this team still has Senior Class Award candidate Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and unguardable sophomore big man Domantas Sabonis (17.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg).
The loss of 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski to season-ending back surgery in December was a major blow, but several players from last year’s Elite Eight team remain, including point guard Kyle Dranginis, who has continued to improve as the season has gone on.
PREDICTION: This is going to be one heck of a game. Both teams enter the tournament with a chip on their shoulder, as both may have been under-seeded. Seton Hall earned more than a 6-seed when it ran through the Big East tournament, picking up wins over 2-seeds Xavier and Villanova on Friday and Saturday. They deserve better than a first-round matchup with Gonzaga, which is one of the more talented 11-seeds you’ll ever see. This is a classic matchup between backcourt and frontcourt; and we think the Zags’ great frontcourt lineup wins the day. Gonzaga wins a close game here, then beats Utah in the second round and advances to the Sweet 16.