Gonzaga squares off in the opening round of the tournament against the Big East Champion. Since the Bulldogs and Pirates haven't played each other since 1954, let's take a deeper look at a very unfamiliar opponent.
Meet the Opponent
Seton Hall Pirates (25-8), KenPom #24
Seton Hall hangs their hat on their defensive prowess, coming in at 15th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Despite the lack of imposing big men, they are equally adept at defending the interior as they are the 3pt line. Seton Hall primarily plays a matchup zone that flummoxes teams that aren't prepared for it.
Pacing, spacing, and quick ball movement will be the keys for the Gonzaga offense. Having a skilled passing big man in Sabonis, and another big that can stretch the floor like Wiltjer, are nice weapons to have in combating the matchup zone.
Seton Hall's offensive scheme isn't as structured as the defensive system, relying more on the individual brilliance and playmaking ability of the lead guards to generate scoring opportunities. The Pirates are 299th in the country in 3PA/FGA rate, and Gonzaga really only needs to key on Isaiah Whitehead, Desi Rodriguez, and Khadeen Carrington on the perimeter as the trio combined for 455 of the team's 564 3PA.
Seton Hall's offense operates under motion principles, but I suspect they'll run a lot more pick-n-roll with the intention of creating a mismatch against Wiltj. Gonzaga's guards must defend the high screen aggressively, and force the ball-handler away from the screen to protect Wiltj. For his part, Wiltj should drop down to the elbow to corral the ball handler and keep them outside the paint.
A team typically does not want to concede corner threes, but because Seton Hall doesn't shoot very well from deep, the Zags can get away with having the weak-side defender come off their man to help on the screener rolling to the basket. Whitehead, Rodriguez, and Carrington have shown an affinity for gunning it--sometimes to their detriment--so if the defense can corral the ballhandler above the free throw line on the high screen, the trio will likely begin to settle for inefficient long jumpers.
Isaiah Whitehead is the go-to-guy for the Pirates, accounting for 31.3% of Seton Hall's possessions. That's a big number. To put that usage rate into context, he's significantly ahead of guys like Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn, and Buddy Hield, who all come in at the 28.6-28.8 range.
Charged with carrying the team's offensive load, there's really no shot that Whitehead won't take.
The former five-star recruit has lived up to his recruiting billing as a prolific scoring guard. While not the most efficient player in the land, Whitehead is an absolute handful for whoever is guarding him. Eric McClellan will have to live up to his WCC Defensive Player of the Year status to slow down Whitehead. However, Mark Few should definitely mix it up and throw Dranginis and Melson at Whitehead on occasion just to give him different defensive looks, and give E-Mac a break.
Befitting a team that runs a guard-dominated offense, Seton Hall likes to push the pace when they can. However, this does get them into trouble, as they are a turnover prone team. Turnovers like the one below, are a byproduct of playing too fast and loose with the ball, as we saw often with Perkins at the start of the season. Gonzaga is not a team that forces a lot of turnovers, the defense isn't designed to do so, but Seton Hall will probably still have some head-scratching unenforced errors that will gift the Zags extra possessions.
The tournament is new territory for every Seton Hall player except for their lone senior, Derrick Gordon. You've probably heard by now that Gordon has the distinction of being the first player to ever play in the NCAA Tournament with three different programs (Western Kentucky, UMass, and now Seton Hall). I don't necessarily buy the notion that inexperience could hurt them, but Gonzaga is a squad that has been through some battles. In what should be a tightly contested game, any slight advantage might be the difference.