INDIANAPOLIS – Here are the current standings of the six top major conferences. Notice something? There is one — and only one — team off to a rollicking 5-0 start in league play.
That’d be Seton Wonder-Who’ll-Get-Hurt-Next Hall. Or as Myles Powell said Wednesday night, having scored 29 points to help knock off No. 5 Butler 78-70 for the Pirates’ seventh consecutive win, “We’re hoopin’ right now . . . It seems like everything is going our way.”
It wasn’t always like that. Flip back a few pages of the season, and the karma wasn’t good for Seton Hall.
National player-of-the-year-candidate Powell, who had been at his best against heavyweight competition with 37 points against Michigan State and 32 against Oregon? Out nearly three games with a concussion. Second leading scorer Sandro Mamukelashvili? Gone 6-8 weeks with a wrist fracture. The No. 13 ranking in the polls? History, with three defeats in five games. Seton Hall, the preseason Big East favorite, had joined the ranks of the unranked.
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The low point was against in-state cousin Rutgers. Powell was gone in the early minutes, after taking a charge and hitting his head on the court. The Pirates were run over 68-48.
P.S. They haven't lost since.
Coach Kevin Willard remembers how it was. "We didn’t worry about the losses. When you play the schedule we’ve played, and you’re playing the amount of road games we’ve played, you’re going to get some Ls. We just stayed positive, we just stayed focused, we didn’t worry about what everyone was saying. You have to be patient and let them grow. I didn’t lose my mind. I knew we were going to have some bumps when we had some injuries."
Powell remembers, too. "When we were losing, he never lost confidence in us. I feel like that’s the most important thing; when you have a coach who believes in you so much, it’s kind of hard to lack confidence. So it started with the man in charge. And then for me, being the leader, I had to put my big-boy pants on and bring everybody together and let everybody know this is not over, and this is not how our season is meant to go. We caught ourselves before it was too late."
Butler was 15-1 overall and 9-0 at home, sitting happily in its highest Associated Press poll position in school history, and fourth in the nation in scoring defense. Then Seton Hall showed up in Hinkle Fieldhouse Wednesday night.
The Bulldogs had allowed an average of 19.3 points in the first half in three Big East wins. The Pirates passed that mark in 9 ½ minutes. Butler was giving up only 54.4 points a game for the season. Seton Hall topped that by 24.
So now the Pirates are 13-4 and back in the top-25. They're relentless, trailing by double digits in three of the league victories, but making a habit of big second halves. So the Butler game was not out of character: 30 points in the first half, 48 in the second. They’ve never started 5-0 in the Big East before, and Wednesday night was only their second win ever on the road against a top-5 team in the AP poll. The other was against Syracuse 20 years ago.
And Powell? Once he cleared concussion protocol, he quickly reminded hostile Big East arenas what the fuss was about. In three conference road games at DePaul, Xavier and Butler, he has gone for 27, 24 and 29. Move over Dayton’s Obi Toppin and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. Powell is back in the player-of-the-year race.
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Plus, his teammates are getting better around him,
"When you have the best player in America, and he’s able to get you 40 . . . you’d better double," Willard said of the opponent’s defensive challenge. "I think what Myles has gotten much better at and what our team has gotten much better at is they’re understanding where to be when he’s getting double-teamed."
No wonder that of Seton Hall’s 24 field goals at Butler, 18 came with assists, including 11 of 13 in the second half. The Pirates can pass. And when Powell isn’t burying 3-pointers, they can always lob toward the stratosphere to the 7-2 Romaro Gill, for him to turn passes into dunks. That’s how he scored 15 points in the second half at Butler, whose coach LaVall Jordan summed up the problem: "They can throw it to a place you can’t go."
Also, with Gill turning into a fierce rim protector, it can be a problem to score on Seton Hall. The Pirates blocked 15 Maryland shots, which is how they upset the Terrapins 52-48 in a pitcher’s duel, without their two top scorers.
So happy days are here again at Seton Hall, and Mamukelashvili will be back soon, too. It wasn’t easy for Powell — who is so eager for his senior season to be something special — to watch from the sidelines. But he understands good things can come even from a concussion.
"Basketball is my life right now, so if you take basketball away from me for two weeks, that was probably one of the hardest things that I had to go through. But I felt like this is what God wanted. I feel like that’s what started this run. They beat a top-10 team in Maryland without me. It sucks to say it, but I feel like that was the best thing that happened to our team. These young guys having to step up. Everybody’s buying in right now."
Is he the nation’s best player? Willard makes it clear he thinks so, and that means a lot to Powell.
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"It fills my heart. Coach has had unbelievable confidence in me. That’s part of where I get my confidence from. He puts the battery on my back. He’s always telling me, 'Take this man, he can’t guard you, we need a bucket, we need a play, go out and make something happen. Dive on the floor. Do something.'
"Coach knows how to get me going. I wouldn’t be Myles Powell today without Kevin Willard."
Like the man said, they're hoopin' at Seton Hall.