Kevin Willard said he understood the frustration.
He said he understood why some Seton Hall fans demanded that he be fired last year. He said he understood the criticism he got for a 2014-15 season that saw the Pirates go from No. 19 in the country to no postseason at all. To Willard, “it’s irrelevant now” whether or not a fan allegedly spit at him as he left the court following a 22-point loss to Marquette in last year’s Big East Tournament. All the doubters, all the naysayers, all the haters – they are all irrelevant now.
“Fans are short for fanatics,” he said. “You don’t get mad when they’re angry because you’re losing. No one is more angry when we lose than I am. You understand their frustrations; you understand that.”
Just a year later, the Pirates are now No. 20 in the country, according to the Associated Press. Seton Hall is fresh off a Big East Tournament championship and on its way to Denver as a No. 6 seed for a first-round NCAA Tournament bout with No. 11-seeded Gonzaga. The Hall has 25 wins to its name and is just one of six teams in the last 30 years to take down three top-five opponents while unranked. Willard – the same man whose head the Pirates faithful wanted served on a platter – was even named Big East Co-Coach of the Year alongside Villanova’s Jay Wright.
“That’s a very good basketball team,” Wright said of Seton Hall after losing in this year’s confer- ence tournament finale. “A well- coached basketball team. I think Kevin has done a great job with them.”
Despite drastically different results, Willard said that not much has changed in regard to his coaching between this season and last. He still has the same practice plans and the same defense. His offense has only changed “a little bit.” Contrary to the few times he has benched players this season, Willard said he was actually tougher on his guys last campaign. The biggest difference, he said, is talent.
“I just have really good players,” Willard said. “It makes a big difference.”
Associate head coach Shaheen Holloway echoed Willard’s notion that his approach has not changed. The former Seton Hall star said the team’s maturation – the Pirates boast an all-sophomore starting five – is a big reason for the turnaround.
“Guys are growing up. Guys are understanding what it takes to play in this league. Last year they didn’t really understand it because it was new to them. Now they understand. They didn’t know. So far it’s been a good journey,” Holloway said. “I think Coach did a great job with the team this year. I thought he did a great job with them last year.”
Great job or not, there was a point when Willard was scared last season would be his final act at Seton Hall. A few weeks ago, he talked about promising Athletic Director Pat Lyons a winning season if he was kept on in South Orange.
“I’ve always believed in the process Kevin was doing here. “I certainly believe in the athletes that we have,” Lyons said following the Big East Championship. “They’re good human beings, good citizens, so I just believed in that process.”
The “process” has paid off for Lyons. As Willard promised him, Seton Hall is in the midst of a winning season, one that has yet to end. With last year behind him and March Madness ahead, the coach can take pleasure in both his team’s and personal success.
“I’m just glad we’re winning. I’m glad everyone’s excited now. The fanbase is energized and these kids energize them and have done a great job. More than anything, that’s all I care about.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips