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2016 NCAA Preview: Gonzaga and Seton Hall bring hunter mentality into first round match-up

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Stylistic opposites in unfamiliar positions meet Thursday in Denver.

Gonzaga's Eric McClellan will have his hands full on Thursday.
Gonzaga's Eric McClellan will have his hands full on Thursday.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

After spending the 2015-2016 season hunting the top teams in the Big East the Seton Hall Pirates open the NCAA Tournament against a team with a history of knocking off big names.

The Zags (26-7, 15-3 WCC) enter the dance on a five game winning streak in which they've played possibly the best, most complete basketball of the season. Seton Hall (25-8, 12-6) brings the momentum of having defeated Xavier in the Big East semis and Villanova in the final. Stylistic opposites, the Pirates get their points from the backcourt while Gonzaga relies on its bigs.

It's an extreme discrepancy. Gonzaga, per KenPom, ranks fourth in the nation with 29.1% of its points coming from the power forward position. An additional 24.5% of scoring is done by the Zags' five man, which ranks 39th in the nation. Seton Hall comes in 350th (second to last) and 302nd respectively.

Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Domantas Sabonis (17.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg) give Gonzaga arguably the nation's best starting frontcourt. I say starting because without senior center Przemek Karnowski who went down for the season in early December, and a reserve center Ryan Edwards who has missed the past two games with a knee sprain, they're pretty much all the Zags' have up front.

That's not bad for the Pirates though, since sophomore point guard Isaiah Whitehead (18.4 ppg, 5.0 apg) has been more than able to carry the load on offense. Whitehead is heavily relied upon by Kevin Willard's team. With a usage rate of 31.3% he's the 17th most active offensive player in the nation.

So, WCC Defensive Player of the Year Eric McClellan (10.6 ppg) will have his hands full with the Pirates' sharpshooting, smoothing passing star.

Joining Whitehead on the perimeter is another productive sophomore in Khadeen Carrington (14.3 ppg). Offensively the Pirates backcourt has the advantage, and if you haven't seen the Zags play since November or December you might think they've got an insurmountable task ahead.

Gonzaga's guards have taken a lot of flack this season, being the scapegoat for a disappointing non-conference performance. That was then, before this inexperienced unit got it together. Now leading the charge on defense with the 10th best three point percentage defense in the nation (30.3%) and rank two tenths of a percentage point better than Seton Hall in effective field goal percentage defense (45.1% to 45.3%).

Inside the Pirates will send yet another super sophomore, this time Angel Delgado (10.0 ppg, 9.4 rpg) to work against Sabonis and Wiltjer.

Neither team is particularly deep. Gonzaga, without Ryan Edwards, has been running essentially a six man rotation that has accounted for 92 percent of the minutes played over the past five games. Seton Hall relies on seven guys. Both teams have managed quite well without depth but in Denver, at altitude, it won't be easy.

Seton Hall's dream season has the Pirates back in the dance for the first time in ten years. It also sent them to Denver for their first game of the tournament. The last time Gonzaga went to Denver as an 11 seed was 2011. The Zags knocked off 6-seed St. John's, also out of the Big East, in the first round.

Say what you want about the selection committee — it should be some really, really awful stuff after what they did on Selection Sunday — but between the history and the match-up they've given us a really good first round match up here.