One year has made all the difference for Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard.
On Sunday, Feb 28, his Pirates cemented their status as an NCAA Tournament team, knocking down No. 5 Xavier, 90-81, at the Prudential Center. It was the Hall’s 21st win of the season – its 11th conference win – and it came in front of a thunderous sellout crowd of 10,353 people chanting “Let’s Go Pirates.”
A year ago there were Seton Hall fans who would have said none of this was possible. A year ago Willard was worried about job security, not whether his team would be a seven, eight or nine seed once March Madness starts.
The Pirates fell apart last season. At one point the No. 19 team in the nation, Seton Hall went without any postseason play after dropping nine out its last 10 games. Two starters transferred from the program. There were widespread reports of locker room tension. Fans were calling for the coach’s head.
“I give (athletic director) Pat Lyons credit,” Willard said after beating Xavier. “He could have gotten rid of me last year. I told him, ‘If you stick with me, I promise we’re going to win next year. I trust these kids, I know these kids.’ I really give it to Dr. (Gabriel) Esteban and Pat for not making a change.”
When asked just how close he thought Lyons and Esteban were to making that change, Willard provided some comic relief.
“Honestly?” Willard replied. “Jeez, let’s see. The same lady that sold me my house was at my house telling me what a great job we did improving the house. We put some nice curtains up and things like that.”
Instead of getting fired or selling his house though, Willard, along with a talented sophomore class, stayed put in South Orange. Now, rather than looking through college basketball classifieds or real estate listings, Willard is booking a ticket to the Big Dance, Seton Hall’s first since 2006.
“It’s been a long process,” the coach in his sixth year at Seton Hall said. “It’s not an easy process when you take over a high-level job. I think you go into it, you’re stupid, you’re naïve, you think you’re going to do things that you can’t do.”
This year the Pirates have done things no one else thought they could do. The team, now third in the Big East, was picked to finish seventh in the conference by coaches in the preseason. Chris Mack, Xavier’s head coach, is not surprised with the progress Willard has made.
“I think he’s one of the best coaches in the league,” Mack said of his counterpart – and fellow Big East Coach of the Year candidate – following Sunday’s upset.
Willard’s players – the ones he put all that faith into – realize the hard times he has moved past in the last year.
“He’s grown,” sophomore forward Desi Rodriguez said. “With a lot of ups and downs and a lot of adversity that he took, a lot of people were talking about him and how they wanted him to get fired. He’s been strong about that. He kind of blocked that out. He didn’t worry about it.”
Now there is no such talk. There is no need to block anything out.
The only thing Kevin Willard has to worry about is the NCAA Tournament.
Gary Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips.