It seems relatively clear at this stage that the Big East title will go through Villanova and Xavier, the two programs with the highest pedigree and the most success in the new iteration of the Big East conference. They’ll play Wednesday under a national spotlight, bringing as much attention to the conference that it will get all season.
But Seton Hall’s 90-87 win over Butler was as star-studded an affair a Big East fan could hope for.
Butler was outscored by three, but Seton Hall center Angel Delgado outscored Butler forward Kelan Martin by just a point. Delgado owned the first half, scoring 20 points before the break, while Martin added 27 points in 30 minutes.
It’s been a long road for both of them to national relevancy.
During his sophomore and junior seasons, Martin averaged more than 28 minutes per game but kept bouncing between a starting and a sixth-man role, despite having the highest scoring average of 16 points. He had the highest usage in the entire Big East a season ago, but he butted heads with then-coach Chris Holtmann over his effort and playing time, according to the Indy Star.
He said the film sessions were brutal as the coaches cut the tape to highlight his defensive lapses and emphasize his lack of hustle. By the middle of last season’s conference slate, he said he had lost his confidence. And his underwhelming production mirrored his sentiment.
Martin averaged more than three fewer points per game in conference play as a junior (14.3) than he did as a sophomore (17.6) , and his three-point percentage dipped by 3 percent.
To add insult to injury, Butler forward Andrew Chrabascz, who averaged six fewer points as well as fewer rebounds, steals and blocks, received All Big East recognition over him.
Angel Delgado had a sizeable struggle of his own: getting Seton Hall over the hump.
Seton Hall failed to make the NCAA Tournament his freshman year after 9 of its last ten games, but Delgado showed potential from the start. He played nearly 30 minutes in his first season, and he nearly averaged a triple-double as a freshman with 9.3 points and 9.8 rebounds.
Isaiah Whitehead led the Pirates to a Big East Tournament Championship when Delgado was a sophomore, and it wasn’t until his junior year that Delgado became a double-digit scorer with a double-double average. But the Pirates still hadn’t made it into the national picture.
Coming into this season, Delgado was 8-16 against KenPom top 25 teams, and Seton Hall hadn’t advanced in the NCAA Tournament in career, with their only postseason success coming in the 2016 Big East Tournament. The Pirates have been a mere six-seed and a nine-seed in the last two NCAA Tournaments, and Seton Hall had never been ranked nationally before the beginning of this season.
Delgado and Martin’s battle on Saturday was them making up for time lost from earlier in their careers. Delgado had a career-high 28 points and 15 rebounds and was virtually unstoppable as he went 9-15 from the field behind a myriad of post-ups and put backs against Butler’s undersized front line.
Then, he sealed the win with an offensive rebound, collecting a missed three and forcing the Bulldogs to foul with less than 30 seconds left.
After being forced to sit for most of the first half after two quick fouls, Martin scored 20 points in the second half on a 9-18 shooting night. Despite his struggles from beyond the arc, Martin played a pivotal role in building an 11-point lead, and Lavall Jordan kept turning to him for baskets late.
But with the game tied at 82 and just over a minute to go, Martin drove towards the basket and was chested by Delgado, who contested and rebounded the shot. His outlet pass to Khadeen Carrington, who added 29 points of his own, led to a fast-break layup and gave the Pirates the lead.
Seton Hall, sitting at 3-0 in the Big East for the first time since 1999 and ranked 21st in the country, is building its best NCAA Tournament resume it has in Delgado’s career, while Martin is finally getting to call Butler his team. So their matchup didn’t disappoint.
Mind you, this was a showdown between the fourth and fifth teams in the conference, ranked by KenPom.
”The Big East is the best basketball league in the country,” Kevin Williard said after watching two of the conference’s biggest stars show out. “And it’s not even close.”