The Villanova Wildcats will not repeat as BIG EAST champion, thanks to the Pirates of Seton Hall.
The folks down in South Orange, New Jersey will undoubtedly be swilling alcoholic beverages and singing songs about how swell it is to be on top; songs like 'We Are the Champions,' 'Heroes,' 'Roxanne,' and who could forget 'Bach's 5th Symphony in G Minor.' For the first time since I was an infant, the Pirates are on top of the BIG EAST world, all thanks to a team full of energetic and emotional players that, by golly, just love to play the basketball.
You should've seen Madison Square Garden tonight. The atmosphere was like a Phish concert without the marijuana and with a basketball game instead of music. It was like a dog kennel right before feeding time. It was like a dynamite store covered in hay with a lit match roasting on top of it. There was a magical feeling in the Garden tonight; the Pirate faithful showed up to support their team and made all sorts of noises when Isaiah Whitehead displayed his superior basketball skills.
The first half was an exciting bout of basketball, with Seton Hall firing on all six cylinders to blitz the Wildcats out of their shoes. Villanova tried - very hard - to try to stop the Pirate's transition offense, but it looked as if they were playing imaginary hot potato with their defensive assignments. There was a point in time where Ismael Sanogo had the ball on the high post, backing down a clearly frightened Darryl Reynolds, and briefly looked over his shoulder to notice that the lane was completely void of any Wildcat, so he turned and scored on a poorly contested layup with absolute ease.
Eventually the first half came to an end, with Seton Hall completely dictating the game.
Basketball on the college level has two halves, however.
The second half started with Villanova making a run. Well, attempting to, anyway. It became clear that the Wildcat's plan of attack was to slow the Pirates down on defense by missing as many shots as they made - an improvement over their first half tactic of missing nearly everything they put up - and eventually the Cats were able to put enough defensive pressure on the Pirates that they cut their deficit to just six by the 14-minute mark.
From then on it was a haze of pure, unadulterated, uncut and gorgeous- basketball. The next time you start to feel sad after watching your son's YMCA basketball team, just watch the final 14 minutes of this championship game. You'll undoubtedly smile to yourself and feel good that premium basketball exists and it will eventually be on demand.
Villanova cut Seton Hall's lead to one point and then flirted with taking the lead for a while. Seton Hall didn't enjoy how coy the Wildcats were being so they'd occasionally push their lead to three or four, sometimes letting the Wildcats get close enough to tie it up. It was disgusting how flirtatious Villanova was being, but thems the breaks in New York City.
It wasn't until there was 54 seconds left on the clock did Villanova finally decide to fully commit and take the lead. They held that lead, a lead of three points, for 34 seconds of gameplay, only for Isaiah Whitehead to finally put the clamps down and send Villanova into the losing column again. There was a man with a Villanova class ring sitting two seats to my left (not a media member, just an asshole) who proceeded to double fist smash the table when Whitehead hit that shot. He was fuming, just livid, that his hoopball team didn't do good hoops. I was going to ask him to calm down but I enjoyed watching his complete mental breakdown. It was soothing.
In the end, Seton Hall was clearly the best team in the BIG EAST during the tournament. Now they get to bring home a trophy and some excellent watches. Congrats, guys!
Here are three things we learned from the championship game.
3 Things We Learned
1) Seton Hall makes plenty of history
The Pirates ended a few notable droughts with their win over Villanova at Madison Square Garden. It is the first Big East Tournament title for The Hall since 1993 and their third in program history. Seton Hall is now 3-0 all-time in Big East Tournament Championship games. The Pirates are also a lock to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 because they claim the Big East automatic bid.
Seton Hall also did it against the number three team in the country. Villanova was also the defending conference tournament champions and two-time defending regular season champions.
Isaiah Whitehead had one of the all-time performances in the Big East Tournament and his crucial plays down the stretch will long live in the memory of Pirate fans everywhere. Of course, the biggest being the basket with 18.5 seconds that tied the game. The free throw to put Seton Hall in front for good after he was fouled on the play would be the difference in the end.
"This whole year Coach has been raving about just making winning plays. I really just attacked the basket" Whitehead said. "I felt I had an opportunity to score the ball. I mean, I saw Kris Jenkins coming over and I knew that we wouldn't be able to get in position fast enough for me to draw a charge. I just tried to lay it on him."
Whitehead made winning plays throughout the tournament and is well deserving on the tournament MOP.
2) Give Coach Kevin Willard the credit he deserves for turning the team around
Remember last year for Seton Hall? After tonight, it seems like a lifetime ago. The Pirates collapsed down the stretch of the regular season before being dispatched by Marquette in the first round of the Big East Tournament 78-56. A number of things happened, but one thing that didn't was a change at the coaching position. Many wanted to get rid of Kevin Willard, but the school and Athletic Director Pat Lyons stuck with him. Now they are champions.
Willard knows how to coach this team, what buttons to push and how to handle his players in certain situations. It is at the point where he will let his players take over and lead each other during games. When Whitehead, Derrick Gordon, Ismael Sanogo or others are setting the examples it is no wonder this team is so close with each other and has great chemistry on the court.
Willard knew early on that this team was special.
"I've said this 1,000 times, it was this summer. May 19th. That's when I knew," Willard said. "Grant Billmeier (Seton Hall assistant coach) reminded me of something. When I rehired Grant, I told him I said, Grant, I know things look shaky but I'm telling you, man, these kids are special. And after about a month of Grant being around him, he came up to me and said, you're right."
Willard "should be fired" now he is the Co-Big East Coach of the Year.
Whitehead was injured last season now he "should have been Big East Player of the Year" and is the Big East Tournament MOP.
The Pirates were bottom dwellers, but now they are conference champions and Willard is a big reason why they have made one of the greatest turnarounds in college basketball history.
3) Seton Hall and Villanova played one of the all-time great games
It was Seton Hall's night no question about it. As someone who covers the team and is a student at the school this is an incredible moment I did not think I would ever cover in my life let alone in college. However, we also have to take into account the significance of the game as a whole. This may go down as one of the greatest Big East games ever played, certainly conference title games.
"Great college basketball game. Just awesome to be a part of it. The Garden was rocking" Nova coach Jay Wright said. "You know, we just got beat by a team that played better than us tonight."
It had everything.
Clutch three pointers? Check.
Big defensive stops? Check, including the play of the game on the block by Sanogo on Hart in the final seconds.
A game-winning shot? Check, Whitehead's bucket and foul with 18.5 seconds will live on forever in Seton Hall lore.
This is a game we will look back on and immediately think of the words "classic," "thriller" and, of course, "Big East."
Give both of the teams credit for once again showing us that the Big East conference is not only here to stay, but has the best tournament in the country in the best venue in the world. The Big East is the best.
Now both teams will get set to play in the NCAA Tournament and try to continue their great runs. Both Seton Hall and Villanova have a chance to go deep into March so it will be exciting to see what happens going forward.
Buckle up, folks. March is in full swing.
From Madison Square Garden, Sean Saint Jacques and Alex Sindelar saying so long. What a week it has been. Enjoy the rest of March everyone!
Big East Tournament 2016 All-Tournament team
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Ismael Sanogo, Seton Hall
Josh Hart, Villanova
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier