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The Seton Hall Legacy of Kevin Willard

As the final horn sounded at San Diego State's Viejas Arena on the night of March 18, the Seton Hall Pirates walked off the court dejected after suffering not only their largest loss of the season, but the also second-largest loss of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

The No. 9-seeded TCU Horned Frogs pounded the Pirates into submission with a 27-point victory, a devastating loss that was followed by a press conference that all but confirmed Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard's departure after 12 seasons.

It was an unceremonious end to one of the most successful coaching tenures in the school's history.

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On March 17, 2010, Seton Hall fired coach Bobby Gonzalez. In his abbreviated, four-year stint as the head of the Pirates' program, Gonzalez went 66-59 overall, including an abysmal 27-43 mark in conference play and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament a single time.

In his first year, the Pirates missed the Big East Tournament for the first time ever and the program amassed just two wins in the conference tournament during his tenure.

He took in transfers Robert Mitchell and Keon Lawrence and there was trouble almost immediately. Mitchell voiced his frustrations with Gonzalez's coaching to the media before he was dismissed from the team days before their NIT matchup with Texas Tech (the program's only postseason appearance under Gonzalez), and Lawrence crashed his car with a suspended license and was suspended just eight games despite multiple criminal charges.

Gonzalez's farewell entailed a first-round exit from the NIT after losing to Texas Tech by 18 points, but not before forward Herb Pope was ejected after punching TTU's Darko Cohadarevic in the groin and Gonzalez earned his seventh technical of the season.

With on-court antics and poor basketball performance that was well below the standards of a storied Big East basketball program, Seton Hall's higherups had had enough of Gonzalez.

Patrick Hobbs, the dean of Seton Hall School of Law and athletic director at the time of Gonzalez's firing, said of his dismissal, "Performance and success are not measured solely by wins and losses, but also in the conduct of those associated with the program. We have expectations as to how our coaches and players will conduct themselves, and they are expected to treat everyone they interact with, whether officials, the press or our students, with the utmost respect, maturity and professionalism. Those core expectations must be met."

Gonzalez was arrested for shoplifting less than a year after his firing.

At this point in time, Seton Hall was a Big East bottom-dweller and a laughingstock.

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When the new head coaching search began, the Pirates looked for multiple things: good recruiting, upgraded defense, and an emphasis on discipline. A name that was tossed around briefly was Pat Knight, the son of legendary head coach Bobby Knight and the head coach of the Texas Tech team that squashed the Pirates in the NIT, but he stayed at Texas Tech for another year before he was fired.

Siena's Fran McCaffery looked to be the favorite for the job until signing on with Iowa

Another early candidate was Willard, then the coach at Iona.

Willard was no stranger to high-level basketball before his time in South Orange. His father Ralph played at Holy Cross from 1964-67 and began coaching just four years later. Kevin played under Ralph for one year at Western Kentucky in 1992-93 before Ralph accepted the job at Pittsburgh and Kevin finished his playing career at the same school.

After graduating, Willard immediately became an assistant under Rick Pitino with the Boston Celtics for four years before following Pitino to Louisville until 2007.

Fresh off a second place finish in the Big East and an NCAA Tournament win with the Cardinals in 2006-07, Iona offered him their head coaching job after an underwhelming 2-28 season under Jeff Rulund.

In three seasons at the New Rochelle, NY school, Willard took the program from being ranked in the bottom 10 in the country in the Ratings Percentage Index, to going 21-10 in 2009-10 and being ranked in the Top 80 of the RPI.

After a turnaround that was complete almost as soon as it had started, Seton Hall leadership had seen enough. The reigning MAAC Coach of the Year was headed for Seton Hall University on March 28, 2010.

And so began a drastic culture shift that would forever change Seton Hall basketball for the better.

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After Willard's press conference, The Associated Press wrote, "In becoming the basketball coach at Seton Hall, Kevin Willard has taken on two jobs. The first is to guide the Pirates to the next level in the Big East and land an NCAA tournament berth. The second might be even more important: Willard must restore peace to the program after a number of controversies led to the firing of Bobby Gonzalez."

This was no small task, despite the Pirates recording 19 wins in Gonzalez's season. The program had not won a conference championship since the P.J. Carlesimo days of 1992-93, and two wins in four years at the Big East Tournament was not going to cut it for a team that had been part of the league since its inception.

Willard would struggle to get immediate results. With the remnants of Gonzalez's regime in guys like Pope, Jeremy Hazell, and Jeff Robinson, strong individual performances were not enough to buy the team any postseason success.

It was not until his second season where any ideas of March runs began. Led by seniors Pope and Jordan Theodore and Fuquan Edwin's breakout sophomore season, the Pirates lost in the second round in both the Big East Tournament and the NIT.

In just his second year, Willard had already amassed as many postseason wins as Gonzalez had in his entire tenure.

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The next three seasons should likely have a big asterisk next to them saying, "work in progress." Seton Hall inched ever closer to stringing some March magic together as Willard settled into his role.

In 2012-13, a mediocre 13-17 (3-15) was enough to earn a 12-seed in the Big East Tournament, priming them for one win over South Florida before being dropped by Syracuse by 12 points.

The following year was another year of tangible progress for Willard's staff. Thanks to the conference's realignment, Cincinnati, Louisville, Notre Dame, Rutgers, South Florida, and UCONN decided to pursue ventures in other conferences.

Now with the Big East Conference in its smaller form, The Hall went 15-16 (6-12) and won two games in the Big East Tournament before losing to Providence in the semifinals. It was the program's deepest run into the conference tournament since 2001.

The next season was underwhelming, as 16-14 (6-12) followed by a first-round bow out in the Big East Tournament. Fortunately, everything was about to come together.

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Shaheen Holloway writhing on the floor in pain at HSBC Arena on March 19, 2000 is an image that will forever be ingrained in the minds of the Seton Hall faithful. One of the team's senior leaders and the Big East's Most Improved Player had dropped 27 points and the overtime winner against Oregon just two days prior before going down with a sprained ankle just eight minutes into their second round game against Temple.

This likely squashed Holloway's NBA dreams. He went undrafted in the 2000 NBA Draft and despite being invited to summer camp by both the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks, the Queens product could not crack a roster.

Holloway ended up playing in seven different countries before retiring in 2007 and immediately joined Willard's staff at Iona as an assistant, quickly becoming Willard's top recruiter. His contagious personality and high basketball IQ sucked in highly talented prospects and by 2014, the program was reaping the benefits.

Headlined by five-star New York product Isaiah Whitehead, Holloway secured a Top-15 recruiting class in 2014, a class that led the 2015-16 Pirates squad to their most wins in a season since the fabled 1992-93 team.

Whitehead, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, and Khadeen Carrington brought a 22-8 (12-6) regular-season finish to South Orange, earning a three-seed in the Big East Tournament and going on a magical run that saw the program's first Big East Championship in over 20 years.

With the automatic berth into March Madness, the Pirates were eliminated in the first round by perennial powerhouse Gonzaga, but thanks to the squad that Holloway was able to compile, Seton Hall would become no stranger to early March runs and NCAA Tournament appearances.

Willard's Seton Hall story is incomplete without the chapter of his successor, Holloway.

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Besides the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, 20-win seasons became the norm at Seton Hall on the strength of Willard's ability to take the raw talent that Holloway would hand him and develop the young players into high-level, nightly performances.

After Holloway's departure in April 2018 though, the Pirates just kept getting better.

Each year, leaders would find their way to the forefront of the Seton Hall offense. Two straight seasons of four 10+ point per game scorers propelled the Pirates to success against other high-level programs. A victory over No. 22 Texas Tech in 2017 and a win over No. 9 Kentucky the following season are memories Pirates fans will forever cherish.

However, what no one realized was that an overweight, 6'2" kid from Trenton that could shoot the lights out was going to be the one to give the fans incredible memories and hopes for some serious March success.

When Myles Powell came to South Orange as the 82nd ranked recruit in ESPN's Top 100 in 2017, Willard knew what he had to do to unlock this shooter's potential. With the help of Willard's staff, Powell shed 45 pounds his freshman year and saw his playing time increase as he started to dominate.

He earned the Big East's Most Improved Player after his sophomore year before averaging 23.1 points per game in. His leadership took the Pirates to the Big East Tournament championship game and primed the Pirates for a historic year in 2020.

Despite battling injuries, Powell led the Pirates to a ranking as high as No. 8 on the back of 21 points per game in his senior year. If not for the season's cancellation due to COVID-19, The Hall looked to have their best shot at a deep March run since the playing days of the man that recruited him.

Unfortunately, after Powell's career ended, he made the decision to sue Willard and the school for mismanaging his knee injury which he claims cost him an NBA Draft lottery pick.

The sour taste that Powell may now have put in fans' mouths cannot hide the fact that during his career, Powell and Willard had a father-son relationship that fans fell in love with.

During Powell's venture into the NBA Draft waters after his junior year, Willard stuck by Powell's side, even flying out to Chicago to support Powell during the NBA G League Elite Camp. Each had nothing but praise for the other, publicly.

Before the conclusion of his senior season, he said, "[Willard's] like a father figure to me... If I had to pick another school four years ago, I'd do it all over again. I love Coach Willard. I'm glad he was able to coach me for four years. I'm thankful to have him in my corner."

Powell is perhaps Willard's magnum opus as the head of Seton Hall's program. The kid nicknamed "Cheese" because of his weight eventually scored 2,000 points in his Pirate career, won Big East Player of the Year and the Haggerty Award and was the school's first consensus All-American since 1953.

Powell's support system of bigs highlighted by Michael Nzei and Romaro Gill called attention to assistant coach Grant Billmeier's excellent development of forwards. Nzei, Gill, Mamukelashvili, and Ike Obiagu flourished in Willard and Billmeier's system, as the paint against Seton Hall turned into death valley for undersized guards.

The junior-year jumps made by Powell, Mamukelashvili, and Jared Rhoden showed how well Willard gets the best out of his players, and the wins that came in hand showed how his players get the best out of him.

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Despite the consistent NCAA Tournament appearances, the one thing that never came easy was the wins. In six different appearances in March Madness, Seton Hall accumulated one victory.

In 2018, the Pirates secured their only March Madness win of Willard's tenure, taking down NC State before losing to No. 1 seed Kansas.

Besides this, Willard had a 16-point loss to Gonzaga in 2016, a six-point defeat to Arkansas in 2017, another 16-point loss to Wofford in 2019, and a flat-out embarrassing 27-point defeat to TCU in his final game.

For a program that has multiple Sweet 16 appearances and a National Championship that just barely slipped their grasp in 1989, the fans were frustrated with limited success when it mattered most. It became especially apparent after his final showing in the Big East Tournament and against TCU that deep March runs were not in the cards for his future at Seton Hall.

The Seton Hall-Kevin Willard relationship had reached its peak. It was time to move on. Willard signed on as head coach of the Maryland Terrapins on March 21, 2022, officially ending his 12-year run as a Pirate.

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Even if the program plateaued towards the end of his time at the helm, Willard's 12 years as head coach of Seton Hall should be viewed as a resounding success.

Under Willard, the program transformed from the butt of a Big East-wide joke, to a perennial conference title contender and a recurring player in March Madness.

Stars like Whitehead and Powell earned their stripes thanks to Willard's guidance, and favorites of Willard like Nzei and Myles Cale etched themselves in the annals of Seton Hall lore.

Willard himself found his way onto many leaderboards as well, finishing his tenure with the second-most wins in the school's history and the 11th most in Big East history.

For many that revitalized their interest in the team during Willard's resurrection of the program, Seton Hall without Willard feels like there is a piece of the puzzle missing. The Big East is in an era that is rife with larger-than-life faces and personalities. The Big East-lifers in Patrick Ewing, Jay Wright, and Ed Cooley will miss Willard dearly, and the mutual respect and friendships the many coaches formed was top-tier entertainment for fans who love the culture of the game.

Seton Hall press conferences seasoned with Willard's snarky comments and occasional crankiness always kept journalists on their toes but established a personality and relatability that many within the sports sphere lack.

His animation on the sidelines was infectious, making his reactions to winning the 2016 Big East Championship and beating No. 9 Kentucky iconic images for Hall fans.

But most of all, Willard turned these players into men.

In their final press conference after their NCAA Tournament loss to TCU, Cale and Rhoden shared the same sentiment: "I came to Seton Hall a boy, and I left a man because of Kevin Willard."

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