When Seton Hall's Kevin Willard initially learned his team would be facing Dayton this year in its notoriously loud arena, the second-year coach admits he wasn't pleased the previous regime agreed to schedule it.
Only after the Pirates emerged with a resume-boosting 69-64 victory on Wednesday night could Willard find the good in bringing his team to such a hostile environment.
"I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have scheduled that game, but it worked out great because we won," Willard said Thursday. "I'd rather have played that game at home, but I think it ended up being a good test that prepares us for conference road games."
A hard-fought victory over a Dayton team that has beaten Alabama and Minnesota is the latest sign Seton Hall may exceed expectations this season. The Pirates, projected 13th in the Big East preseason poll, have won 10 of their first 11 games to climb into the top five in the RPI and build momentum for the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 2006.
Although Wednesday's trip to Dayton was Seton Hall's first true road game, the Pirates haven't feasted on cupcakes either. Among the teams they've beaten are vastly improved St. Joseph's, CAA contender VCU and a Wake Forest team that is showing signs of life after last season's debacle.
"We haven't played a murderous schedule but we haven't played an easy schedule by any stretch of the imagination," Willard said. "I think I'm most happy about being 7-0 at home during our non-conference schedule. We were able to win all those games and get some confidence at home."
It's easy to see why little was expected of Seton Hall this year considering how the Pirates struggled in Willard's debut season. They faltered when leading scorer Jeremy Hazell got hurt and then became too dependent on his outside shooting when he returned, resulting in an 18-loss season and a first-round exit in the Big East tournament.
The steady play of point guard Jordan Theodore and the emergence of former role players Fuquan Edwin and Patrik Auda have contributed to Seton Hall's improvement this season, but it's senior forward Herb Pope who has been the primary catalyst for the torrid start.
His body weakened after collapsing during an April 2010 workout and briefly slipping into a coma as a result of a rare arterial disorder, Pope wasn't himself last season. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, decent numbers but a step backward from his production as a sophomore when he led the Big East in rebounding.
Pope is in far better shape this season because he was able to spend the summer conditioning and lifting weights as opposed to recuperating in a hospital bed. As a result, he's thriving in his first season as the centerpiece of Seton Hall's offense, averaging career highs of 21.4 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
"To have him healthy is really a huge difference," Willard said. "People still can't wrap their mind around the fact that the kid spent two months in a hospital and he wasn't cleared to walk or jog until September and he wasn't cleared to play basketball until Oct. 17. He tried to come back and play at the high level he was used to and his body just couldn't do it. His body was still recovering. So to see where he is now, it's really remarkable and it's an amazing story."
What was especially encouraging for Seton Hall about the victory over Dayton was that the Pirates held off the Flyers even though Pope picked up his fourth foul with 10:29 left in the second half and had to sit down. Auda picked up the slack in Pope's absence, scoring 18 points including buckets on back-to-back possessions to keep Seton Hall in front 56-50 with 8:21 to go.
The challenges only get tougher for Seton Hall after it concludes the non-conference season at Longwood on Friday. Big East play begins with a road game at top-ranked Syracuse, followed by home tests against West Virginia and UConn.
Before the season, all three of those games looked like losses. Now opponents who disregard Seton Hall do so at their own risk.