SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (AP) Seton Hall might be considered a question mark heading into the NCAA Tournament based on the second half of the season.
After a great start that saw the Pirates reach No. 13 in early January, they finished winning only six of 14 games and losing their only game in the Big East Tournament to Butler in the quarterfinals.
Coach Kevin Willard and his senior-laden team aren't worried as they head to their third straight NCAA berth. The Pirates (21-11) got a No. 8 seed and will play Thursday against ninth-seeded North Carolina State (21-11) in a first-round game in the Midwest Regional.
To start, leading scorer Desi Rodriguez (17.8 points) seemingly has gotten over a foot injury that kept him out of the final three regular-season games and had him coming off the bench against Butler. Starting senior forward Ismael Sanogo also is 100 percent after missing the final regular-season game with an ankle injury.
Willard downplays the 6-8 finish. In fact, he is confident about his team.
''Even when we went through that stretch, three of our losses were against two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament,'' Willard said referring to Villanova and Xavier. ''I think our conference is as good as any in the country. Villanova went 3-3 at one stretch. Xavier lost two in a row. Our conference is going to give you some Ls. They bounced back and they are playing really good basketball.''
The Pirates also are going to benefit from a week off. Their last game was Thursday, which allowed Rodriguez and Sanogo to heal. They also are bringing experience to the NCAA Tournament, which has resulted in two first-round exits.
After winning the Big East Tournament two years ago, the Pirates had nothing left for the show and were ousted by Gonzaga, which was underrated as a No. 11 seed. Last year, the Pirates were right there with Arkansas until turnovers cost them at the end.
''There is no time to question now,'' said senior point guard Khadeen Carrington, who has been carrying the team the past month. ''I think we finished up the season pretty well. We lost a tough game against Butler at the buzzer. Butler is a good team. There's nothing to hang your head about. Of course, you are mad you lost, but that was a good game, a hard-fought regular Big East battle.''
Rodriguez participated in 75 percent of Monday's practice and Willard said he would start if ready.
''There were some bumps in the road,'' Rodriguez said of the season. ''I know we are a great team. We faced adversity and overcame it. We are playing great basketball.''
Sanogo, who was suspended for a game for violating team rules during the season, said the Hall is focused at this point.
''All that is in the past,'' he said. ''Yeah, we were ranked No. 13. Yeah, we lost a couple of games. The end goal was to make the NCAA Tournament and win some games, and that is what we are preparing to do.''
The guy who can play a major role against the Wolfpack of the ACC is senior center Angel Delgado, the all-time leading rebounder in the Big East and the active NCAA leader in double-doubles with 71.
If North Carolina State has a weakness, it's rebounding. The Wolfpack plays four guards at times, space out their offense and put a lot of pressure on the opposing guards.
''This is the time,'' Delgado said. ''This is the time to make dreams come true. That's all we are trying to do every single day.''
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