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Seton Hall beats Xavier, spoils potential 1-seed battle

NEW YORK -- There will be no winner-take-all battle for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Villanova did its part Friday evening to get to the Big East title game, but Seton Hall spoiled a potential Nova-Xavier championship matchup by jumping out to an early lead and beating the Musketeers 87-83.

Had Xavier knocked off Seton Hall, a win over Villanova might have been enough to get the Musketeers up to a 1-seed. They would have won two of three over the Wildcats and been 29-4 heading into Selection Sunday.

But that’s irrelevant now. Xavier was a 2-seed before Friday, but teams like West Virginia and Utah are still alive in their conference tournaments and could potentially jump the Musketeers by Sunday, pushing them down to a 3.

Seton Hall has quietly been one of the best teams in the country over the past six weeks, winning nine of 11 to end the regular season, including a home win against Xavier in late February. Kevin Willard has done a terrific job with the Pirates, and Isaiah Whitehead is playing like the best player in the Big East.

Joe Lunardi had Seton Hall as a 7-seed on Friday evening, but the Pirates are on an upward trajectory heading into Saturday night’s title game. Willard and Whitehead have the Pirates playing with a chip on their shoulder; they want to win a Big East tournament championship.

Villanova swept the regular-season series against Seton Hall, but the Pirates were in the game midway through the second half in the first meeting and lost by one at home in the second game. The Wildcats certainly won’t roll over Seton Hall.

Khadeen Carrington continues to emerge: While Whitehead was arguably the most impressive player in the Big East throughout conference play -- and he did have 20 points, five rebounds and eight assists on Friday -- it’s his backcourt mate who has been a catalyst during the past couple of weeks. Carrington had 27 points in Thursday’s win over Creighton and followed it up with a big first-half performance to jump-start Seton Hall on Friday. He had 14 points, five rebounds and three assists in the first 16 minutes against Xavier and finished with 23 points.

Carrington has developed into a consistent complement to Whitehead. He finished the regular season with 17.5 points in his final two games and hit double figures in five of his final six outings. Whitehead has been outstanding all season, but Carrington’s emergence has alleviated some of the pressure from Whitehead and allowed him to be a dynamic playmaker.

Seton Hall isn’t loaded with high school All-Americans or future pros, but the Pirates really defend and make life difficult for opponents. Throw in their consistent effort and they’re rarely out of a game. The difference lately has been on the offensive end, and a lot of that has to do with Carrington. Whitehead and Carrington compose the type of backcourt that can win games in March, and they’re only picking up more momentum and confidence.

Xavier’s concerning performance in losses: Xavier has now lost five games this season. It has been a tremendous season for Chris Mack and the Musketeers, absolutely. But the way they have looked in those five losses has to be a worry heading into the NCAA tournament. The first four losses came by an average of 15.8 points, and Xavier was down by as many as 17 points in the first half against Seton Hall on Friday before trimming the lead in the second half.

The strengths for Xavier are apparent. The Musketeers score the ball as well as anyone in the country, with six guys capable of consistently hurting defenses. But there are some weaknesses that really tend to “shine” through when they get down early. They can be pressured on the ball, and Seton Hall exploited that by changing defenses and trapping the ball -- both in a half-court setting and extending it to three-quarters court. Xavier had 13 first-half turnovers that led to 15 Seton Hall points.

Moving forward, Xavier needs to take care of the ball better -- they only had three second-half turnovers on Friday -- and match their opponent’s effort from the opening tip. This was the second time in two weeks that Seton Hall has jumped out to an early lead against the Musketeers and won. Mack's group can't allow that next week.