With Big East season now upon Seton Hall, Angel Delgado and Pirates recognize need to raise stakes as Creighton visits Prudential Center Thursday in conference-opening battle of ranked teams. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
The stage is larger, the pressure ramped up, the lights brighter and greater in number. And for Seton Hall. the sense of urgency is imminent heading into the Big East portion of a schedule that has already tested the Pirates on numerous occasions with five days remaining in 2017.
Conference champions two years ago and semifinalists twice more within the past four seasons, Seton Hall faces a stern challenge right out of the gate in their Big East opener Thursday night, when the Pirates; ranked 23rd in the nation, welcome 25th-ranked Creighton to Newark in a Top 25 showdown that tips off at 6:30 p.m, the first Seton Hall game in which both teams were ranked since January 21, 2001, when then-No. 18 Seton Hall knocked off eighth-ranked Syracuse at the Continental Airlines Arena.
"I've been really pleased with the way we've played so far," head coach Kevin Willard said on Tuesday morning's Big East coaches' conference call, assessing the overall performance of Seton Hall (11-2) in the non-conference season. "We challenged ourselves with a tough non-conference schedule and I thought our guys really did a great job of accepting the challenge. We only really didn't play well in one game (the Thanksgiving night loss to Rhode Island), and so from that standpoint, I'm really pleased."
But a step up in competition presents itself for the next two months, and the Pirates' anchor in the middle is cognizant of what lies ahead, approaching the 18-game conference slate with the same hard-nosed mentality with which he goes after a rebound.
"Going into the Big East, it's real games now," Angel Delgado cautioned following Seton Hall's win over Manhattan this past Saturday. "We've got a lot of work to do. I think we didn't hit the button yet to be a great team. There's a lot going on right now, but we're just focused on getting better every single day."
A victory over Creighton (10-2) would go a long way toward pressing the proverbial button of which Delgado speaks. The Bluejays, winners of five straight since a December 1 loss at Gonzaga, are among the more efficient teams in the nation, shooting 52 percent from the floor and nearly 40 percent on three-point field goal attempts. Marcus Foster (19.5 PPG) and Khyri Thomas (15.3 PPG) command most of the attention in scouting reports, but 6-foot-9 sophomore Martin Krampelj has broken out as arguably the most improved player in the conference to date this season.
"If there's a more improved player in our league from last year to this year, I'd like to see him," Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said of his Slovenian sophomore. "He just worked so hard in the offseason on developing his body. He came here probably with the idea that someday he'd play the small forward, but because of Justin Patton going to the NBA, we had to slide him over to that center position. He runs the floor, he sets ball screens, he's slipping ball screens, averages 7.5 rebounds per game and is shooting a good percentage (67 percent from the floor). Martin's play has been a real difference-maker for us on both ends of the floor."
Seton Hall has their work cut out for them against the aforementioned three-headed monster, and although patience will be tantamount to success Thursday night, the reality that nothing less than a fully committed effort will be needed to emerge victorious is one that remains firmly in the minds of the Pirates, and all Big East teams for that matter.
"You can't come down and take quick shots and let them get in a rhythm where they can just get out and run," said Willard of stopping Creighton. "They do as good a job as anybody in the country, whether it's a make or miss, of just pushing the pace and getting their wings deep in the corners where they have you spaced out. And once they're spaced, you're obviously worried about Foster shooting, Thomas shooting, (Toby) Hegner shooting it. I think you've got to take your time on your offensive end and make them work a little bit, and not take shots because they really capitalize off of that."
"I think one of the greatest things with this league is the older guys know the coaches. They know how they play, they know the players and how good they are, and they understand that if they don't put it into another gear, that they're going to get embarrassed, they're going to lose games. They really understand how good of coaches we have and how good of players we have in this league, and that you've really gotta step it up to the next level."