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Former coach Dan Monson likes GU’s chances against Seton Hall

Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead was named Most Outstanding Player as the Pirates won the Big East Tournament, defeating two top-five teams in the process. (Associated Press)
Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead was named Most Outstanding Player as the Pirates won the Big East Tournament, defeating two top-five teams in the process. (Associated Press)

Long Beach State coach Dan Monson had just landed in Seattle and was relieved to learn hotel reservations had been finalized for his team.

Monson had a lot on his mind, facing a short prep for Tuesday’s NIT date against Washington, but he quickly boiled down Gonzaga’s first-round NCAA tournament matchup with Seton Hall on Thursday.

“It’s really contrasting styles,” Monson said in a telephone interview. “Two of the best guards against two of the best bigs. Where will the game be played – on the perimeter or on the inside?”

Monson’s 49ers edged Seton Hall 80-77 on Nov. 19 in the Gildan Charleston (South Carolina) Classic. The 49ers shot 55.4 percent from the field and did a nice job defensively on Pirates’ standout guard Isaiah Whitehead, who scored 21 points but made 7 of 18 shots to go with four assists and four turnovers.

The sixth-seeded Pirates (25-8) won 12 of their last 14, knocking off then-No. 5-ranked Xavier and No. 3 Villanova to capture the Big East tournament title. Those wins pushed Seton Hall into the rankings at No. 20 in the Associated Press and No. 21 in USA Today.

“It was early on and teams are just forming who they are. They’re obviously a different team now,” said Monson, who went 52-17 in two seasons as Gonzaga’s head coach and guided the 1999 team to the Elite Eight, the first of GU’s 18 consecutive NCAA trips. “They’ve done a great job with that team. Every time I watch them they’ve gotten better and better.”

Whitehead, who averages 18.4 points, and running mate Khadeen Carrington (14.3 ppg) are a handful in transition and in the half-court. Whitehead, voted the most outstanding player in the Big East tournament, is the first McDonald’s All-American to play for Seton Hall since 2001.

Whitehead was the cornerstone of a 2014 recruiting class that was rated in the top 10 by some scouting services. He was joined by Carrington, guard/forward Ismael Sanogo, forward Angel Delgado and forward Desi Rodriguez, Whitehead’s teammate at Lincoln High in Brooklyn.

In other words, Seton Hall’s all-sophomore starting unit. The five combined for 1,983 of the team’s 2,470 points and 932 of 1,321 rebounds.

The Pirates won 25 games, the most since the 1993 team went 28-7, under sixth-year coach Kevin Willard, who was named co-Big East coach of the year. Willard led Seton Hall into the Top 25 last season but the team faded with a 1-9 finish.

“We felt Whitehead was a premier guard in the country. We really tried to get the ball out of his hands as much as possible and force someone else to beat us,” Monson said. “With Carrington, we thought those two were as good of guards as we would see all year.

“We tried to trap Whitehead anytime he had the ball, on all his ball screens. I remember one time we had him trapped at about 25 feet. He just rose up and shot it and made it. I’m thinking, ‘Maybe we have to go with three guys on him.’ ”

The Pirates led the Big East in field-goal percentage defense (40.1) but face a big challenge against Gonzaga forwards Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, who combine to average 38 points per game.

“We spread them out and we shot the ball well,” Monson said. “Once we did that it opened up for the inside guys. Gonzaga is going to have to make some outside shots because I’m sure they’ll double Sabonis. You have to negate their athleticism by moving the ball and making them guard both sides of the court.”

Gonzaga’s challenge will be containing dribble penetration, particularly by Whitehead and Carrington.

“They’re very guard oriented,” Monson said. “The big guys were solid, they make shots with angles, but that’s not how they beat you. They beat you with guards and they’re really aggressive driving the ball.”

Monson likes Gonzaga’s chances.

“I might be a little partial,” he said, “but I think it’s a great draw for Gonzaga.”

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