Surging Seton Hall prepares for huge No. 5 Butler challenge

The scary thing is this can get better.

Seton Hall hasn’t played its best basketball yet. It’s not whole. The young players in the program haven’t hit their ceilings.

“I like the way we are playing defensively, but I think we have a lot of room for improvement offensively as we move forward,” coach Kevin Willard said in a phone interview. “I think it’s a matter of we played such a hard schedule, that we haven’t had a lot of time to get into a rhythm offensively. We’ve been really grinding defensively.”

The numbers back up that assessment. No. 18 Seton Hall is ranked 10th in the country in defensive efficiency and 38th in offensive efficiency. It’s winning with defense.

Wednesday night in Indianapolis, the Pirates will see a team playing even better than they are when they visit fifth-ranked Butler, which allows the fourth-fewest points in the country (54.4). The Bulldogs have been one of the big surprises in college basketball. Picked to finish eighth in the Big East, they are just a half-game behind Seton Hall for first place and have just one loss, a one-point road setback at No. 2 Baylor.

“I look at it as a big challenge. They are legitimately really, really good,” Willard said. “They’re so physical on defense. Defensively, they’re as good as I’ve seen. Offensively, they just play to their strengths and Kamar Baldwin is playing at a high level.

“They remind me of Michigan State a little, how big and physical they are.”

Seton Hall (12-4) enters the game feeling very good about itself, having reeled off six straight wins and have started the league season at 4-0 for just the second time in program history.

A lot has changed in the last month. The Pirates were reeling then, coming off a 20-point rout at the hands of Rutgers, and star senior Myles Powell was going to miss time with a concussion.

Without him, they stunned No. 17 Maryland. Since returning for the league season, he’s been red-hot, averaging 22.2 points per game in winning consecutive Big East Player of the Week honors. Just as important, the supporting cast has picked it up. Sophomore Jared Rhoden and freshman Tyrese Samuel have filled in nicely for injured power forward Sandro Mamukelashvili (fractured right wrist). Center Romaro Gill has emerged as more than just a shot-blocking specialist, scoring in double figures three straight games. Quincy McKnight’s all-around game has improved, as his 9.2 points and 7.5 assists in league play suggest. Everyone is contributing.

“The way we’re playing is because of the schedule we played,” Willard said. “In the non-conference, we played three true road games and only six home games. No one else did that. We took some lumps, it wasn’t always pretty, but I think it has helped us.”

Mamukelashvili underwent a bone scan on his wrist Monday and the results were positive, according to Willard. The coach said the junior forward, who is still wearing a brace on his wrist, is ahead of schedule, and could return when the Pirates host Xavier on Feb. 1. He’s been out since Dec. 8.

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