NEWARK – I wouldn’t chalk it up to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Kevin Willard warned us post-Georgetown that he didn’t think his team was where they should be defensively, and boy did it show in an 81-75 loss to a fun-to-watch Butler team on Wednesday at Prudential Center.
“I’m going to be a little critical,” prefaced Willard late on Saturday night after beating Georgetown. “I don’t think we’re as good defensively as we need to be or can be.”
Fast-forward four days later and Seton Hall put up what was perhaps their worst defensive effort of the season, albeit against a very well-drilled Butler team that got what it wanted on the offensive end all night.
Even when Kellen Dunham wasn’t scoring on back-door cuts in the second half or Kelan Martin scoring every which way in and around the paint, Butler was able to hit back-breaking shots like Tyler Wideman’s baseline jumper late in the second half or of course Roosvelt Jones’ textbook looping floater in the lane to ice the game with 20 seconds left.
“Coach is ready to kill us man,” said Isaiah Whitehead post-game, the first words out of his mouth. “That was probably the worst defensive game all year, I think it was even worse than Creighton because it was just blatant wide open shots and just giving up open lanes, it was horrible today but we’re going to bounce back.”
Whitehead, who kept his team in the game after going 7-for-7 from beyond the arc in the first half en route to 26 points and 10 dimes, couldn’t have been more frustrated and up front with the team’s defending.
“It’s just about getting stops, and that’s all you can really say about that, we just didn’t get stops,” said the sophomore. “They shot 55% from the field, that’s unheard of you, you can’t win games like that.”
Although Seton Hall displayed some decent defense over the opening 20 including holding Kellen Dunham (18 pts) scoreless, they clearly didn’t have the same energy that was displayed in a relentless 40 minutes against Georgetown days prior.
“We just didn’t have the same energy and the same defense that we’ve had over the last four games,” observed Kevin Willard. “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 starts from me,” said team leader Derrick Gordon. “I didn’t bring it the way I usually do. I take a lot of the losses personal and it starts with me. I’m going to blame myself this game because if I came out ready to play, we would have won this game but I didn’t come out and look what happened, we lost.”
Gordon tracked Dunham off the ball like a hunting dog for the first 20 minutes but he also had a hand in several turnovers and just didn’t have it offensively (4 pts, 2-5 fg, 0-2 ft). After the half, Dunham was able to beat him off the dribble time and time again, getting to the lane with ease.
“We weren’t communicating, we were just all over the place. We weren’t playing like we usually play,” said a dejected but honest Gordon. “We got caught up into worrying about the offensive end too much. It showed on defense, letting guys get open, me getting back-doored. It’s just a number of things that usually don’t happen.”
Despite the lackadaisical defense, Seton Hall was able to amp up the pressure over the closing minutes and turned a 9-point deficit at the under-four into just 2 with a little over a minute to play. A Gordon deflection set the Pirates up to tie the game down three, but Ismael Sanogo would split a pair at the line, setting up Roosevelt Jones’ late floater to seal it.
“That was a tough shot. He does floaters, that’s all he’s did his whole college career,” said Gordon of Jones. “That was my fault, I should have switched off onto him, I should have guarded him on that last possession knowing he was going to take that last shot.”
While disheartening, it’s important to look at the big picture: Seton Hall going 2-1 on this 3-game homestand is a success, not to mention they were in this game to the wire despite playing less-than-stellar.
“It’s not a setback for us at all,” proclaimed Gordon. “We still know that we can still get there [the NCAA tournament]. We know that we have a lot of games to play, we’re not going to let one game affect us.”