It took nearly a decade, but Kevin Willard finally has the Seton Hall men’s basketball program where he wants it after taking over as coach in 2010.
Tasked with rebuilding a program in shambles, the first couple years of the Willard era featured the occasional positive sprinkled in with mostly negatives. Willard took the Pirates to the NIT in his second year, but three consecutive dismal seasons followed. At the end of the 2014-15 season, Willard was staring unemployment in the face. Instead of allowing a fourth bad season in a row to transpire, Willard orchestrated a 25-win season and has not looked back. Seton Hall has made four straight NCAA Tournaments and is primed to make a fifth straight trip to the big dance with expectations surrounding the program as high as they’ve been since the 1990’s.
With preseason All-American Myles Powell back for his senior year and surrounded by the deepest team Willard has had at Seton Hall, the Pirates are ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 to begin the season. A ranking in the Top 25, let alone a top 15 nod, with Willard at the helm seemed unfathomable with the way the first half of his time with the program went. Now, the Pirates are back in the national spotlight, elite recruits are flocking to South Orange and Willard is the man behind it all.
While all of this is well and good, being a nationally ranked opponent means lofty expectations that must be met in order for a season to be deemed successful. Seton Hall is no longer a program questioning whether or not it will make the NCAA Tournament. It is one questioning how deep of a run it can make once March rolls around.
This means the days of Seton Hall playing the underdog are over. For the past couple of years, the Pirates could always fall back on low expectations to rile them up and spark a magical run. Take last season for example. Seton Hall was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East and seemed destined to wind up back in the NIT. The Pirates used those low expectations as a rallying cry en route to a late season surge that resulted in an NCAA Tournament bid.
What will Seton Hall’s rallying cry be now that it can no longer play the underdog card? This is a veteran team loaded with talent, so in a perfect world, the Pirates won’t need one. Having a loaded non-conference schedule and high expectations to meet should be enough for Powell and company to dig deep and deliver. With that being said, history indicates Seton Hall will hit a bump in the road at some point this season. What’s it going to take for them to get over the hump when that happens?
The Pirates are no longer the hunters. They are now the ones being hunted. It’s a welcomed role reversal that might take some getting used to, but the status of being one of the top dogs should be enough to replace the underdog feeling that has followed the program for years.
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.