He was part of a wholesale Big East changeover in and around the New York/New Jersey area, brought in with Steve Lavin at St. John’s and Mike Rice at Rutgers to ail some flailing programs.
Kevin Willard’s job wasn’t the easiest or the toughest but renovating Seton Hall certainly wasn’t for the faint of heart. The Pirates hadn’t been good in a while — their last NCAA tournament berth came in 2006 — and instead had fallen into that horrific abyss of irrelevance.
Throw in off-court black eyes brought on from former players and the turmoil-plagued tenure of Bobby Gonzalez and let’s just say Willard had his work cut out for him.
In his second season, the coach already is reaping some rewards. Seton Hall ranks among the biggest surprises in the Big East. The Pirates, who have won 11 of their last 12, already have won more games this season (14) than they did all of last season, and with eye-popping wins against Connecticut and West Virginia, are a serious threat in the conference.
This week, Seton Hall debuted in the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 24, ranked for the first time in 11 years as it prepares for tonight's game against DePaul.
While Willard was prepping for the Blue Demons, he took a few minutes to visit the Coach's Corner.
O'Neil: What’s different between your team this year and last?
Willard: Maturity. Even though we’re still a young team, we have two great seniors (Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore) who have been great for us. You need big-time players who can lead a team and play with an edge and we have that now.
O'Neil: Since Seton Hall lost to Syracuse (75-49), your team has won its last three in convincing fashion. Were you worried that they’d bounce back?
Willard: Not at all. We were embarrassed in that game. We had been playing well and then we go up there and just get embarrassed. In a way maybe it was good for us. It allowed us to refocus on what was important to us. Right after it, we had good practices and good film sessions, especially good film sessions. We watched that tape and saw all of the mistakes we made and the guys came out of there ready. I could tell we’d be alright.
O'Neil: What’s it like to watch Herb Pope, who has had his share of problems, have such a big senior season (17.9 ppg, 10.7 rpg)?
Willard: I’ve been through so much with Herb over the last two years, I’m just glad people are getting to know what he’s really like. He’s a great kid and he’s been through so much and he deserves a year like this. I couldn’t be happier for him. This summer I could see that he was really focused. He came back in great shape.
O'Neil: What’s going on in the Big East?
Willard: I think the league is extremely good but it’s extremely young. A lot of coaches lost a lot of very good players and even though they have good players back, they have young players. Look at Villanova, West Virginia, Rutgers, even Connecticut. I think that’s why you’re seeing so many of these good wins followed by bad losses. This is a very difficult league this year.
O'Neil: The million-dollar question. Does your team deserve to be ranked? (The Hall is No. 24 in AP, but still just 28th in the most recent ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.)
Willard: Honestly, I don’t care. I do know that we have the No. 2 RPI and we’ve played the fifth-best schedule in the country. But rankings don’t mean anything to me. It’s great for the fans. It gives them something to be excited about. It allows them to better understand what we’re trying to build here and to see the results a little more clearly. So it means something for them, but not to me.