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Contrasting styles will be evident when Gonzaga plays Seton Hall

Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis has dominated opponents and Seton Hall is well aware of that fact. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis has dominated opponents and Seton Hall is well aware of that fact. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

DENVER – Two teams on a late-season roll.

Two teams with contrasting strengths: Gonzaga’s frontcourt duo of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Seton Hall’s backcourt led by Isaiah Whitehead and Khadeen Carrington.

Two teams with defensive stoppers charged with containing the other’s premier scorer. Eric McClellan, the WCC defensive player of the year, likely to line up on Whitehead. Ismael Sanogo, who has limited many of the Big East Conference’s best forwards, is expected to guard Wiltjer.

Depending on which national outlet you subscribe to, two teams that are trendy picks to do damage in the Midwest Region.

But only one spot available moving forward, and that will be determined when 11th -seeded Gonzaga (26-7) and No. 6 Seton Hall (25-8) tangle at 6:57 PDT Thursday at the Pepsi Center. The winner advances to face the winner of No. 3 Utah and No. 14 Fresno State.

“It’s been like that all year, the media separating us guards and bigs,” McClellan said. “We don’t see it like that. We know what we can do as players and collectively. This is more about our side and what we can take care of. The way we’ve approached it the last week or so, I like where we’re at.”

One significant difference between Gonzaga and Seton Hall: NCAA tournament experience. Wiltjer and Kyle Dranginis will play in their fourth NCAA tournaments. Wiltjer was on one national championship team in two trips with Kentucky, and he averaged 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds to help the 2015 Zags reach the Elite Eight.

“It’s huge for us,” Wiltjer said. “I think we can just play with that confidence like we belong here even though we’re the higher seed. Once the game starts it doesn’t matter where you’re seeded.”

Domantas Sabonis averaged 11.5 points and 8 rebounds to earn All-South Region honors last season. McClellan and Silas Melson had smaller roles. Reserve center Ryan Edwards, who played briefly in a 2014 tournament game, is expected to return after missing the last two games with a knee injury.

“We’ve explained it to (forwards) Angel (Delgado) and Mike (Nzei) and Ish (Sanogo), it’s like playing a grown-up version of (Marquette’s 6-foot-11 front court of Henry) Ellenson and (Luke) Fischer,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said of Wiltjer and Sabonis. “It’s definitely two big matchups. To be honest, the way (Josh) Perkins and McClellan have been playing the last 5-6 games, that’s just as big of a matchup.”

The Pirates are making their first trip to the tournament in a decade. Guard Derrick Gordon is the only Pirate with tourney experience, coming in his previous stops at Massachusetts and Western Kentucky.

“It’s going to be up and down, that’s why they call it March Madness,” said Gordon, the team’s lone senior. “Whether we go up or down, we have to stay composed.”

Willard isn’t worried about Seton Hall handling the big stage.

“This group is fun to be around because they just want to play the games,” he said. “They’re sick and tired of me telling them about how good Wiltjer is, Sabonis is. They’re done with that. They just want to get to Thursday and play.”

The Pirates’ stingy defense was crucial to winning 12 of their last 14. At the other end, guards will try to use dribble penetration to generate offense.

“Their guards are ultra athletic, ultra aggressive and they play with a ton of freedom so it’s a dangerous combination,” GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We’re never going to let teams cut one guy out of the herd and isolate them. We’re going to try to make them play through bodies and in tight spaces.”

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