Kevin Willard continues to change the culture at Seton Hall

Two years ago, on this date, Seton Hall left the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. eight point losers to a 13th-ranked Connecticut Huskies team that would eventually fail to make the NCAA tournament.

That night, the Huskies were led by senior guard Jerome Dyson, who played a marvelous game, doing whatever Connecticut needed him to do. Dyson left the arena with 16 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds, a performance his coach Jim Calhoun would call “one of the better performances” he had ever seen.

The Pirates, hanging their heads in defeat, would leave the arena with nothing more than a solid effort, a 17 point and nine rebound showing from junior Jeff Robinson, and a poor shooting performance (5-of-20) from the team’s star player, junior Jeremy Hazell.

It was one of those ‘more of the same’ efforts from Seton Hall’s end. It was expected.

Fast forward two years: oh, how the tables have turned.

This year’s Seton Hall team put the past behind them when they came to the Prudential Center, prepared to face a Connecticut team that had just one season earlier won 11 straight games en route to the third National Championship in school history.

This time against Connecticut, in the 62nd meeting between the two schools and the first Seton Hall win in the last 11 matchups, the Pirates weren’t able to just defeat the Huskies; they dismantled them.

The victory represents more than just another addition to the win column for the Hall. It’s the quintessence of an era of change in South Orange, N.J., an era of something which this current crop of Seton Hall students really has never seen.

“The most important thing about the [Connecticut] thing was that the fanbase got really excited,” head coach Kevin Willard said during this week’s Big East coaches teleconference. “The national attention is great and it helps recruiting, but I think the most important thing for me and the program is the fact that the fanbase has some buzz and is excited about this team.”

It has certainly been a quick turnaround for Willard, who in his second season is already reaping the benefits of his infusion of new life into a Seton Hall basketball program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2006.

When the week’s new rankings were released two Mondays ago, Willard’s squad found itself among the list of 25 teams, something freshman forward Brandon Mobley said was “great for the loyal fans.” To put it all into haunting perspective, the last time a Seton Hall team was ranked in the top 25 before last week, Mobley was just nine years old and George W. Bush had just been sworn in for his first term as President of the United States. In other words, it’s been a very long time. Willard’s impact has touched the many fans who pack the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. to watch the Pirates compete, but perhaps the two people who have benefited most from his invigorated new approach are his two seniors: Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope.

Even after escaping death twice, Pope has looked like the conference’s most valuable player through 19 games, something only Pope himself seemed to be able to predict.

“I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces this year,” Pope told the media at this season’s Big East media day, letting everyone know that he had something to prove in his last collegiate basketball season.

After Wednesday night’s game at Villanova, Pope is averaging 17.1 points per game and is 12th in the nation in rebounding, with 10.6 a game. His numbers on the court this season are a far cry from last season’s 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds he averaged per game.

As stunning as Pope’s recovery has been, Theodore’s seemingly overnight maturity on and off the hardwood seems just as important.

Though he was left off the list of Cousy Award finalists, Theodore has been a maestro on the court this season for the Pirates. He zig-zags his way through defenses, passing the ball with more efficiency than ever before.

Theodore has been a pivotal part for Seton Hall for four years, but fans have never seen him do what he’s doing this season, as his numbers have steadily climbed to new heights each season.

Through 19 games, Theodore averages 16.4 points, 7.4 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per contest. His assist numbers spiked to an average of three more per game than last season, and four more than the season before that, placing him fifth in the nation so far this season, ahead of his peers Shabazz Napier of Connecticut and Vincent Council of Providence.

Willard has also found solidity in two sophomores: Fuquan Edwin, who leads the nation in steals, and Patrik Auda. Add freshmen Aaron Cosby and Brandon Mobley into the mix and Willard, whose team was predicted to finish 13th in the Big East conference, has the makings of a much deeper team than anyone initially thought.

“He’s building it the right way in difficult times,” said Rick Pitino, the head coach at Louisville and Kevin Willard’s mentor. “He had one player get shot, another player lose his life and then get brought back to life. We have concussions and stress fractures; these aren’t the normal set of circumstances a young man has to go through at the Big East level. We’re very, very proud of Kevin [Willard] because he’s getting his just reward.”

With a 15-4 record, a 4-3 start in conference play, and quality wins against several potential NCAA Tournament participants, Kevin Willard’s Pirates are more than poised for a run at the big dance in March.

For Jordan Theodore, a win against Connecticut is a start, but it is only the beginning of something new.

“We didn’t come into this season just wanting to beat Connecticut,” Theodore told reporters on Tuesday after the victory. “We want to run the table, continue to win, and make it to the NCAA Tournament. We can’t just settle. Tomorrow is a new day and we have to get up and keep getting better.”

Willard’s season got even better, if that’s possible, the Friday afternoon following the Connecticut victory when high school junior, ESPN Super 60 recruit, and Rivals.com’s 26th best player in the nation, Aquille Carr of Baltimore, Md., announced via his twitter that he was committing to Seton Hall after graduation in 2013. Carr’s verbal marks the biggest recruit commitment of Kevin Willard’s tenure thus far.

The wheels of change are in motion for the coach, his staff, his players, and maybe most importantly, his fans; and nobody is ashamed to admit it.

With six succinct words, Theodore summed up the feelings of Pirate fans all over the Garden State: “The rough times are over, man.”


John Lopiano can be reached at john.lopiano@student.shu.edu. For more Seton Hall basketball news, notes, and opinions, follow John on Twitter@JohnLopiano.

Author: Staff Writer

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