Coming into Saturday's game, Butler and Seton Hall were on two entirely different trajectories. The Bulldogs were seeing a massive decline from last season as they went from being ranked as high as fifth in the country, to now sitting at 1-2 in-conference and 2-4 overall. Meanwhile, the Pirates were coming off one of their best all-around team games in years when they beat Xavier last Wednesday.
The Pirates looked like a different team at the start of the first half, going down by as many as 7 points on some lights out shooting from Butler’s Myles Tate, but they closed the half on a 21-5 run which included 13 points from Sandro Mamukleashvili and 10 point from Jared Rhoden.
The Pirates went into half time with 34-25 lead, and Mamukelashvili and Rhoden continued to provide the team with offensive production in the early parts of the second half. The Pirates found themselves up by as many as 13 points, but the Bulldogs refused to ease off. Led by freshmen duo Myles Tate and Chuck Harris, Butler went on an 8-0 run and silenced the Pirates for over four minutes to pull the game back within one point.
With a bad scoring drought, the Pirates saw Tyrese Samuel step up and have his best game in his young Pirate career where he had 3 big blocks and a massive, clutch steal that helped finally put Butler away late in the game. Mamukelashvili brought 22 points and 9 rebounds to the table, and Rhoden dropped 19 points and brought down 7 rebounds.
Shavar Reynolds, who is seen as an emotional leader and playmaking point guard for the Pirates, could not rave enough about Mamukelashvili’s performance, especially his 5-first half assists.
“He’s the best player in the country,” Reynolds said. “Having a 6’10 facilitator who can score at will and can pass the ball, Sandro is special. Him being able to total assists the way he did makes my life a whole lot easier.”
Despite the lower expectations of the team compared to last season, the Pirates have proved everyone wrong, as they have started 5-1 or better in conference play for only the fourth time in school history.
“I think it just shows you where the program is at," Willard said. "We have great kids, and we get great players who work hard in their games and I really like this team. I think this team has a lot more growth to go. I don’t think we’re nearly as good as we’re going to be in a month.”
The Pirates face No. 11 Creighton in their next game, and head into a stretch where they play the Blue Jays and No. 4 Villanova twice each in the next month. This will be a true test of the ceiling of this team and what they can truly achieve.
Brendan Balsamo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @brenbal.