When Kevin Willard accepted the position of head men’s basketball coach, he knew that he would be going up against some of the top teams in the country come the Pirate’s in-conference schedule.
What he did not know was that the biggest test of his Pirate tenure would be the first game that he coaches for the Hall.
The Pirates open there 2010-2011 campaign at No. 22 Temple on Friday night.
In years past, the Pirates have opened up their seasons against mid-level division 1 programs, such as Saint Peter’s, St. Francis, Monmouth and Caldwell. With the exception of a preseason tournament, Seton Hall would play these types of teams until late November or early December and even that was is a stretch (the Pirates only real competition in their non-conference schedule last year came on Dec. 19 against Temple).
The Pirates are 2-5 all-time against teams ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll. They are 4-6 against Temple, including their 71-65 loss to the Owls last December.
To say that Willard is excited about the team’s opening game is a long shot.
“I didn’t schedule the (Temple) game,” Willard said at Seton Hall media day on Nov. 2. “This schedule was an inherited a schedule. You look at it two ways—you go in there and play a very experienced team, and NCAA team, extremely well coached.”
Temple will be a real test for the Pirates. Despite the experience the Pirates have, they are still learning about their coach and vice versa.
“It’s a weird situation,” Willard said. “We have six seniors. I am trying to figure them out in game situations, trying to figure out what makes them tick.”
Senior guard Keon Lawrence agrees with Willard’s predicament.
“I think we still have learning to do in a little bit of time,” Lawrence said. “It’s our first game back. We already know each other, we’re just learning about Coach Willard.”
Besides not completely knowing what his team can do, Willard will also have to watch junior Herb Pope.
Pope is still in the process of getting back into basketball shape following his heart injury that required surgery in April. Though he is 100 percent healthy, according to Willard he is still trying to get his legs underneath him.
“I have to be careful with him,” Willard said. “I want to make sure in January he’s hitting stride, not in January he’s gassed.”
Pope was visibly gassed in the early part of the Pirates’ exhibition game against William Paterson on Nov. 5. However, in 23 minutes of play, he scored 16 points and had 20 rebounds.
Another concern for the Pirates is the readiness of Lawrence.
Lawrence was a healthy scratch from the William Paterson game, in what was announced as a “coach’s decision,” but will play against Temple.
Lawrence is expected to be the second point guard (behind junior Jordan Theodore), an important position in Willard’s style of offense.
“Willard expects me (the point guard) to be the coach on the floor,” Theodore said. “He expects me to know what he is thinking at all times in the game.”
Theodore has high expectations for the Temple game.
“We will be ready for Temple,” he said. “EP (senior Eniel Polynice) will help us. It’s going to take heart. We are going to go out there and play.”
The advantage that the Pirates have is there style of play.
Under Willard, the Pirates will play a controlled full court press, in what looks like a variety of a 2-1-2 press where there are two players in the back court, one at midcourt and two in the front court.
Their offense also looks to run the floor quickly and shoot the three (the team took 26 three pointers against William Paterson.
This is a very challenging type of play to compete against, especially on opening night, just ask No. 5 Pittsburgh.
Head coach Jamie Dixon noted in his post game remarks that “you don’t want your first game to be against a team that presses and shoots 3s.”
The Pirates will open their home schedule on Sunday against the Cornell Big Red, who are the defending Ivy League Champions.
Tim LeCras can be reached at email@example.com.