A neutral site for Seton Hall in Wichita, Kan. will turn largely into a Kansas home game as Jayhawk fans file in on Saturday night at Wintrust Arena. This is no secret to the Pirates, and as far as they know, they have been there, done that.
Each Big East game provides a test for teams to prove their worth. A conference that sent six teams to the Big Dance, the Big East has its share of tough road venues to compete in.
Playing on the road against Butler and Villanova are large tests for any competitor, to name a pair. Seton Hall has conquered Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse for the past two seasons while remaining competitive on the road against the Wildcats.
“We play in the Big East conference, so we’re just approaching this game as any other,” Desi Rodriguez said. “We play against great teams all year, so I think we can prepare for that type of crowd and atmosphere, but we’re excited and our mindset has to be to go in and win.”
Angel Delgado echoed that sentiment, saying playing in the Big East has been a battleground, especially on the road.
“When you play in the Big East, you always expect big things when you go to somebody else’s court, so I think we’re kind of used to that,” Delgado said. “We’ve been playing all four years against great teams, so I think we’ll be ready for [Saturday].”
The Kansas crowd may be one of a different monster in the 10,387-seat arena, but the Big East has given Seton Hall the tools to understand the scenario.
The same can be said for Kansas in terms of a battle-tested conference. The Big 12, which sent seven teams out of 10 to the NCAA Tournament, also plays round-robin style in conference play. This guarantees that each team sees all others two times, home and away, just as the Big East does.
“I think when you play an equal schedule, and you have as good coaches and good players as you do in the Big 12 and the Big East, you really get a true effect of who you are and what you are, you beat up on each other,” Willard said.
In just the past few months, Seton Hall has had four chances to face a No. 1 seed in Villanova and Xavier, and two of those games came on the road. All were losses but remained competitive.
“Us coaches in the Big East, we always say a 10-8 Big East team is really, really good because we played four No. 1 seeds already twice,” Willard said. “All the Big 12 teams have done pretty much the same thing. You create a really good, tough basketball mindset when you play an equal schedule.
“I respect the Big 12 because I think their coaches and their players play a good, hard-nosed basketball, just like the Big East does.”
Just as Seton Hall sees strengths in its Big East preparation, Kansas has experienced similar treatment. Kansas coach Bill Self recognizes how the difficulty of each conference’s systems benefits both programs.
“Did they play five games or four games against — four games against No. 1 seeds. I mean, that’s more than we’ve done. And our league was a gauntlet and their league’s obviously a gauntlet,” Self said. “So yeah, I would say it’s very comparable. You know, I look at them and compare them to teams that we’ve played, and if you look at them in our league, they would fare very well in our league without question.”
In a league that competitive, many games are close calls. That leaves the possibility for any team to challenge another, as seen in the Big East each year.
“The way that we won the league this year, there were so many close games that came down to one or two possessions,” Self said. “I mean, Seton Hall would be a team that could easily compete for our championship in our league.”
Heading into Saturday’s matchup, the Seton Hall player the Jayhawks have expressed the most concern about is Angel Delgado.
“He is a big man and can really rebound the ball,” Udoka Azubuike said. “He passes the ball really good and they use him a lot and he is going to be somewhat of a challenge tomorrow.”
The sophomore center Azubuike will see limited minutes against Seton Hall as he continues to recover from injury. Self said the seven-footer will not see more than 20 minutes, but he is expected to give Delgado difficulty in his time on the court.
Willard drew another Big East parallel when elaborating on the challenge of Jayhawk Devonte’ Graham. The senior guard, who averages 17.6 points and 7.4 assists per game, is what Khadeen Carrington calls “the head of the snake” of Kansas’ offense. His play reminds Willard of a familiar face in Villanova’s Jalen Brunson.
“Devonte’ Graham is as good as any guard I’ve seen in college basketball,” Willard said. “He reminds me a lot of what Jalen Brunson does for Villanova, kind of can score the ball at any time, runs the team extremely well.”
Carrington will be put to the test against Graham who can be crafty in a number of ways. Carrington and Rodriguez said slowing down Graham is a priority, and Willard believes Carrington is up to the challenge.
“I think [Carrington]’s answered the bill really well, he’s played well against Jalen [Brunson],” Willard said. “He’s one of those kids, because of his personality, it doesn’t seem like he gets pumped up for games. He’s not a rah-rah type of kid, he’s Mr. Smooth. But deep down, he understands the challenge, he’ll be ready for the challenge. And I look forward to it, I think it’s going to be a great matchup between those two.”
Between Graham, Azubuike and what is expected to be an overwhelming Kansas atmosphere, Seton Hall has its work cut out for it against the No. 1-seed Jayhawks. The Big East has provided these scenarios before, but Delgado knows once the game tips off, nothing else matters besides what the teams are prepared for at that moment.
“It’s two great teams playing basketball,” Delgado said. “It’s not about who’s better, who’s not better, it’s all about who wins it in the last minute, who wins the game. So we just gotta go play hard, give it all and leave everything on the floor, because at this time of year we don’t have nothing to lose. If you lose, you go home.”
Elizabeth Swinton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eswint22.