That No. 18 Seton Hall is playing for sole possession of first place in the Big East Conference on Wednesday night is no surprise. After all, the Pirates (12-4, 4-0) were picked to win the conference in preseason polls.
The identity of their second-place opponent? No, not Villanova, not Marquette, not even Creighton. It's No. 5 Butler, the same Butler that was predicted to finish eighth in a 10-team league.
Instead, the Bulldogs (15-1, 3-0) are the Big East's highest-ranked team, and deservedly so. They have returned to the roots that helped the program make its name 20 years ago and then flourish a decade ago under Brad Stevens when they played for back-to-back national championships.
Following a 70-58 win Friday night at Providence, Butler has limited opponents to 54.4 points per game and 36.8 percent field-goal shooting. Only four teams have managed to score 60 points or more against the Bulldogs' man-to-man defense.
"We can always come in and hang our hat on defense," forward Bryce Golden said to the Indianapolis Star after the win at Providence. "That's basically what we've been doing up to this point so far. Sometimes shots are falling, sometimes they're not. But we can't let that affect what we're doing on the other end."
The Friars were unbeaten in conference play before running into Butler. They were held to 31.7 percent shooting from the field and 6 of 25 from the 3-point arc. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs got 17 points each from Kamar Baldwin and Jordan Tucker.
Baldwin is Butler's leading scorer at 14.8 points per game while sharp-shooting senior Sean McDermott chips in 11.6, canning 43 percent of his 3-point attempts. Butler converts on nearly 48 percent from the field while outrebounding opponents by an average of 7.1 per game.
As for Seton Hall, it found its stride late in nonconference play with an upset win over then-No. 7 Maryland and hasn't let up since. The Pirates are on a six-game winning streak, including a 69-55 verdict over Marquette on Saturday.
Myles Powell pumped in 23 points for Seton Hall, doing nothing to hurt his cause to win the Big East Player of the Year award he was predicted to take in the preseason. Powell is averaging 21.5 points, nearly twice as many as teammates Quincy McKnight and Sandro Mamukelashvili, who are at 10.9.
During their winning streak, the Pirates have outscored opponents by an average of 12.3 points per game.
"We have a group of guys that everybody wants to buy in," Powell said to the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. "It doesn't matter how it's getting done, who's doing it, as long as it's getting done. That's when you find yourself up on top. That's how our train is rolling right now."
The Pirates enter play Wednesday with a 3-2 road record, including Big East away victories against DePaul and Xavier.
The Bulldogs have a 9-0 home mark that features a 71-57 victory over Creighton on Jan. 4 in their lone conference home game.
--Field Level Media