JACKSONVILLE – Kevin Willard is becoming a tournament regular. His 10th-seeded Pirates boarded a chartered flight for Jacksonville, Fla., on Tuesday night – the first of many distinctions between this preparation and the build-up to his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach in 2016.
That week in March 2016 was one of firsts for Willard: from the dramatic Big East Tournament triumph on Saturday to the subsequent NCAA Tournament inauguration on Thursday. The 2016 Pirates were given a six-seed that year and rocketed two time zones west, to Denver, Colo., where they met Gonzaga; labeled an 11-seed, but with tournament pedigree and knowhow.
When the Pirates faced the Bulldogs, they looked a shell of the team that cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden five days earlier, losing 68-52. Altitude was a talked-about factor, but the result was down to more than thin air. Willard and the Pirates were thin on tournament experience that week, and it showed.
“Yeah, I just think you learn,” a relaxed Willard said on Monday. “Every year, you go through it. You kind of, you pick your travel times; I remember we left for Denver Monday night, and it was just (shrugs) – this year we’re leaving late Tuesday. Get two good days of practice here.
“I think we spent more time getting the guys proper nutrition, make sure they’re getting their sleep, things like that, things that you didn’t think about the first time. Now, it’s – you’re a little bit more of a veteran team, a little bit more of a veteran; you’ve been through it a little bit. So, I feel that we’re in a better situation now.”
By beating Marquette in the Big East Tournament semifinals last Friday night, Willard became the first head coach in Seton Hall history to amass four-straight 20-win seasons. Against that same Marquette team on March 6 – nine days earlier – the Pirates were on 16 wins, trailing and likely headed to the NIT with a loss.
Myles Powell changed the trajectory of that game – as he has the season – with a 34-point outburst. The Pirates closed on an 18-0 run and followed up with wins against Villanova, Georgetown and Marquette again. The victories brought Powell and Willard to the Madison Square Garden podium on Saturday, where Powell could not help but interject his opinion on the 20-win milestone.
“He should have won Coach of the Year,” Powell blurted out.
“Thanks, kiddo,” Willard replied.
Before seventh-seeded Wofford was revealed on Sunday as Seton Hall’s opponent, Willard was moderately aware of the mid-major power. He had seen the 29-4 Terriers play three times over the course of the season, and knew of Fletcher Magee, a sharpshooter with cult hero status within Southern Conference circles.
It was not a case of Willard scouting a potential tournament opponent, though. The 43-year-old is simply a basketball lifer; son of a Coach and a former collegiate player himself. He will sit down and take in a game, and sometimes pick up new methods for his own madness.
“I’m always trying to see if there’s something, if someone’s doing something better than we’re doing, or running a play that, you know, might be good for Myles, or might be good for Mike,” Willard said.
“You can’t learn if you’re not watching and you’re not studying someone else. So, when I see a good team – and I remember watching [Wofford] thinking, man, I love the way they pass, I love the way they cut – you end up watching them and then you kind of watch them a couple times.”
Led by Magee, Wofford is third in the nation in three-point field goals made with 364. The 6-foot-4 senior Magee averages 20.5 points this season on 42.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. As if he needed any added impetus, the Jacksonville region will be a homecoming of sorts for the Orlando native.
The Southern Conference champions are deeper than Magee, too. Cameron Jackson is a 6-foot-8 forward who can both handle the ball and command the low post. He is, like Magee, a senior, and 17th-year head coach Mike Young told reporters on Sunday he is “a post player as good as [he] has ever had.”
The names may be unfamiliar, but Willard has drawn comparisons to Big East opposition.
“They kind of remind me of a mix between Creighton and Marquette,” Willard said. “They really push the pace, they can get up and down like Creighton does. But, you know, on the wings they have two phenomenal shooters, and the point guard does a great job of getting everybody in stuff.”
After finishing the regular season with Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova, Seton Hall faced the Hoyas, Golden Eagles and Wildcats again, in that same order, in the Big East Tournament. Now, in the NCAA Tournament, Seton Hall faces Wofford for the first time in program history.
Willard has studied Wofford extensively since Sunday night, but he is careful not to overload information onto his team. His players have not been unfamiliar with an opponent since January, but he trots around with a laid-back air of assurance, confident they have taken in the message.
He has become a first-weekend veteran, and has learned this tournament – for all its hype – can come down to basics.
“K.I.S.S: Keep it simple, stupid,” Willard said. “When I break it down and I study it, it’s algebra. But, when I give it to them, it’s simple two plus two. You don’t want them being out there thinking, you just want them reacting and playing. Once you start getting them to think a little bit, they become slow.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.