Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Butler 81, Seton Hall 75: JP's 5 Thoughts

By Jason Guerette (@JPGuerette)

Butler has been the toughest opponent over the last few years for the Pirates, bar-none. If the Pirates are Villanova's lone semi-kryptonite in the Big East, Butler is Seton Hall's. While never truly blowing the Pirates away thanks to the individual brilliance of Isaiah Whitehead, you also never got the sense that Seton Hall would wrest control away from the Bulldogs. The end result was an 81-75 win that the visitors really needed.

1. Singin' Those Butler Blues...

The Bulldogs just seem to have Seton Hall's number. The Pirates are now just 1-5 against the Bulldogs since they joined the Big East, with the one win coming against them in the first round of the Big East Tournament in 2014 (which preceded Sterling Gibbs' memorable shot to beat Villanova the next day). Even that one was a squeaker.

Butler is a smart, extremely well-coached team, and with the Pirates, their defense fuels their entire game. Tonight, as it has been most of the time with the Bulldogs, the former won out. Credit Roosevelt Jones, Kellen Dunham and Andrew Chrabascz (who set the screen for Jones' eventual wild game-clinching bucket at the end) for out-smarting the Hall tonight.

2. Keeping Up With The Jones

Is it just me, or is every time I watch Roosevelt Jones a time where I marvel at him as a player? Here's a guy with the ultimate "old-man's" game. His IQ is fantastic, he plays below the rim, he's strong in his core but also deceptively quick with his feet and hands. It seems like he's much, much older than he really is because he never seems to get sped up by the game. He reminds me of a dominant YMCA player in a good way (obviously, he's much, much better than everyone down at the Y)- he beats you with skill and savvy in equal measure to the point where he's just frustrating to play against and awesome to play with. In an era of leapers and length, he's a real throwback. On one hand it's refreshing, but on the other bordering on annoying for opposing players and fans alike. As Kevin Willard said after the game, "I'm gonna be really glad when (he) graduates."

3. Wowza Whitehead

A career night from the all-american literally kept Seton Hall in this one, especially in the first half. Whitehead, who's struggled at times with his shot this year, was literally perfect in the first 20 minutes, blitzing the Bulldogs for 23 points on 8-8 shooting and a remarkable 7-7 from deep (tying a Seton Hall record for threes in a half). In the second half, when Butler focused their defense in on him, his passing ratcheted up to the next level. He found teammates for scores left and right all throughout the half, a few times with some passes that only he can make. He finished with a career-best 26 points on 8-14 shooting, tying his career-high with 10 assists and chipping in a pair of blocks an steals in what was, numbers-wise, the best performance of his career at Seton Hall.

It was not enough, though, because of.....

4. Defensive Slippage

First off, Butler is a great offensive team. They've got savvy veterans who have been around the block, and basketball IQ to spare. And for whatever reason, the Pirates just didn't bring their normal trademark defensive energy. They didn't turn drivers most of the game and it led to 40 points in the paint for the Bulldogs.

"We just didn't have the same energy and the same defense that we had over the last four games," head coach Kevin Willard said. "They did a really good job at driving late in the shot clock. We gave up too many easy layups and it gets deflating after a while."

It was honestly a bit surprising, maybe because the Pirates had been playing so well fueled by a raging fire within on the defensive side of the ball. Whitehead and Derrick Gordon (whose calling card is his mostly tremendous prowess on perimeter defense) seemed to take it to heart afterwards, with Whitehead saying that he "feels bad for (their) next opponents" because of all the focus that will be spent on that side of the ball in the week off Seton Hall now has between games. Gordon took the defeat harder than most because of his defensive mindset, but he echoed that the Pirates now have renewed focus for the home stretch that they can use to fuel their practices leading up to a road return trip to Georgetown next Wednesday.

5. Hold Your Horses

Some folks (CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein for one) may think that it's a "bad loss" tonight by the Pirates. Discouraging? Maybe a little. Disastrous? No way. Coming off their loss at home to Creighton a while back, they began a five-game stretch where they needed to play well and make some hay. With wins over St. John's, Georgetown, Marquette and Creighton (on the road in Omaha, no less) preceding Wednesday night's defeat, the Pirates did that. 

They now sit at 17-7 overall, 7-5 in the Big East with a strong RPI. Road tilts at Georgetown and at MSG against St. John's are on the horizon out of the bye week, followed by two home games against Providence and Xavier that are likely to be tough and finished off by road games at Butler and DePaul. The Pirates are still in a good spot when it comes to their NCAA hopes. The key game in that stretch is their next one, at Georgetown. The Pirates handled the Hoyas in Newark just last week, and Georgetown will be out for revenge. If Seton Hall can get that one, they have a great chance at being 19-7 and 9-5 in conference play with four games remaining on the docket, and 20 wins; 10 in the tough Big East this year, should get Seton Hall in. All is not lost, Pirate fans.

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