While many of the preseason college basketball tournaments are set to begin today and tomorrow, one wraps up tonight in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Seton Hall Pirates are set to face the Illinois State Red Birds at 9:00 PM EST in the finals of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam.
On paper it looked like the championship for the Hall would have to go through the Clemson Tigers and LSU Tigers; however, that’s why they play the games because it rarely seems to work that way. Both Clemson and LSU lost in the opening round to the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs and the Old Dominion Monarchs respectively.
This caused a semifinal matchup between Seton Hall and Gardner-Webb after the Pirates took care of the Nevada Wolfpack in the opening round 68 to 60. The semifinal was a fast, up-tempo, and sometimes out of control game, but Seton Hall pulled away from the Bulldogs to win 85 to 67. A stellar performance off the bench by freshman Desi Rodriguez with 15 points, nine rebounds, and four steals led Seton Hall to the victory.
Surprisingly Rodriguez looked sharper than fellow Abraham Lincoln High School (Brooklyn, New York) graduate, Isaiah Whitehead. Whitehead was easily more heralded out of high school, but the five-star recruit has had some trouble with shot selection at the very early stages of his college career. Coach Kevin Willard has stood behind the six foot four inch guard, and for good reason. Willard knows that Whitehead’s scoring is a key to the Pirates overall success this season and some growing pains are only natural. By handcuffing the freshman it could only make things worse and damage his confidence.
Meanwhile, the Red Birds advanced past the Weber State Wildcats 73 to 64 in the quarterfinal and then beat Old Dominion 64 to 45 in the semifinal. In the game with the Monarchs, Illinois State had a very balanced attack with four players finishing between 10 and 12 points. Senior guard, Daishon Knight, had a solid all-around effort with eight points, eight rebounds, and five assists. They also held Old Dominion to a lowly 11.8% (2-17) from behind the three point line. After Seton Hall guards Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs went a combined 7-11 from behind the arc against Gardner-Webb, the Red Birds will need the same kind of defensive performance to win the title.
The Paradise Jam has been a bit of a letdown from a scheduling perspective for Seton Hall. Because both Clemson and LSU lost, the Pirates never got the chance to play another power conference school for their NCAA Tournament resume. With that said winning all three games is a great confidence boost for any young team, and that makes this game critical. Illinois State is a more than capable opponent in the Missouri Valley Conference and will not just hand the game over. Adding some hardware to a trophy case is never a negative, so a win tonight would allow Kevin Willard to happily enjoy his Thanksgiving back home in New Jersey.