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Seton Hall can fully exorcise demons in Big East title game

NEW YORK -- The comparisons were inevitable.

Last season, Seton Hall went 10-2 during the nonconference portion of the campaign, then opened Big East play with wins over eventual NCAA tournament teams St. John’s and Villanova. The Pirates would win just four games the rest of the season, failing to earn a berth to any postseason tournament.

The 2015-16 season brought another hot start: 10-2 in nonconference play, 2-0 to start the Big East season. And then Seton Hall lost four of five games, including a 15-point home loss to Creighton in the middle of that stretch.

But there would be no repeat of 2014-15 in South Orange this season.

“I think we just got more confident,” sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead said. “I think that week off before we played Providence was big for us to really get better, and really just get back to what we’re used to doing, and that’s defending. When we do that at a high level, I think we can compete with anyone in the country.”

The Pirates have lost just twice since Jan. 23, winning 11 of their past 13 games, including Friday night’s 87-83 win over No. 5 Xavier that put Seton Hall in the Big East tournament championship game for the first time since 1993.

Kevin Willard and his team already have exorcised most of its demons from the past decade. Seton Hall will make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 regardless of Saturday night’s game against Villanova, a deserved berth after years of frustration.

But beating the defending champs in the title game would put a stamp on this season of redemption for Seton Hall -- and with the way the Pirates are playing, it’s hard to count them out.

Whitehead, a five-star recruit coming out of high school, was perhaps the best player in the Big East during conference play. He transformed from a talented yet inconsistent player as a freshman to someone capable of carrying the Pirates for long stretches.

“We put a whole new offense in this year,” Willard said. “Every play was new. The beginning of the year, he was playing well, but he was struggling with, ‘What read do I make on this play, what read do I make on that play?’ We had given him the ball to be the point guard. We just continued to talk with him: ‘Keep watching film, keep working in practice, you’re gonna get it’ -- because he’s that type of kid.

“All you’re seeing is him just getting very comfortable with where his teammates are, what his teammates can do and what he can do. He’s not thinking about what to do, he’s just playing basketball.”

Lately, it’s been backcourt mate Khadeen Carrington who has helped take Seton Hall to the next level. The fellow sophomore and New York City native is averaging 25.0 points in the Big East tournament, helping to shoulder more of the scoring load and force defenses to focus on more than just Whitehead. Both Whitehead and Carrington are capable of initiating offense for others, while also creating shots for themselves and being consistent threats from beyond the arc.

It’s not a surprise the two are saving their best performances for the biggest moments. This is the court Whitehead and Carrington grew up dreaming about, the stage they were hoping to bring Seton Hall back to when they signed in 2014.

“This is what we came to Seton Hall for,” Carrington said. “This is what we talked about before we even came here, getting Seton Hall back on the map, back to where it was.”

Saturday night also could bring about a satisfying exclamation point for Willard, who has been at Seton Hall for six seasons -- and dealt with rumors about his job security for at least the past two. Last season was a frustrating one in South Orange. Not only did the Pirates fall apart in Big East play, but there was constant chatter of chemistry issues and locker room problems. Jaren Sina left the team in the middle of February, and Sterling Gibbs transferred after the season.

Whether the rumors were true, it’s a stark contrast to this season, which has seen Seton Hall look like the most tight-knit group in the Big East -- and one that might not have the most talent in the league, but plays together and simply outworks and out-toughs opponents.

“The tough thing about last year was, our issues were not inside the locker room, our issues were outside the locker room,” Willard said. “Sometimes you have to go through some adversity, you have to grow up. It was a very young group last year; they’ve grown up. They didn’t understand what this was all about, what the Big East was about, what it took. They thought they would just show up and play. They’ve prepared themselves, they’ve worked hard. Just being older makes a world of difference.”

Seton Hall can go out on Saturday evening with nothing to lose. The Pirates are going to the NCAA tournament, and they’re the underdogs to regular-season champion Villanova.

But Seton Hall clearly isn’t satisfied -- the Pirates want a Big East championship. And maybe more.

“We were puppies last year,” Willard said. “Now we’re starting to turn into dogs.”