Kevin Willard has been Seton Hall’s head coach since 2010. Between 2010 and 2015, the Pirates never made the NCAA tournament. Frankly, they only came close once – the 2011-12 team won 21 games, which was the only time Willard led the program to 20-plus wins during that span.
In today’s era of short attention spans, most coaches would get fired for those results. Willard went 82-81 during that five-year stretch – not great for a Big East team, whose members generally pad win totals during non-conference play. Finishing .500 in the league is fine. Finishing .500 overall? Not so much.
Jamie Dixon made the NCAA tournament 11 times in 13 years at Pittsburgh. While he wasn’t fired, Pitt didn’t exactly beg him to stay, lowering his buyout so he could go coach at TCU. Tom Crean inherited a rough situation at Indiana, and by year four, he led the Hoosiers to 27 wins. After two more 27-plus win seasons (with some duds sprinkled in), Indiana let him go. Thad Matta made the NCAA tournament nine times in a 10-year period at Ohio State, including two Final Fours. After two seasons of missing the dance, Matta and the Buckeyes agreed to part way, citing Matta's recurring health issues.
Those are just a few examples of how hard it is to hold onto a high-major job. Seton Hall could have gone in another direction, and many would have justified it. But the Pirates didn’t -- and it’s paying off in a big way.Seton Hall won 25 games in 2015-16, 21 last season, and is ranked 21st as of January 21st.. The Pirates made the tournament both years and will likely go dancing again in 2018. Willard has recruited outstanding players, from Isaiah Whitehead to Angel Delgado to Desi Rodriguez.
Willard was a guest on Andy Katz’s March Madness 365 podcast and offered insight as to why it’s not just Seton Hall that deserves credit for its own turnaround – but the Big East’s pragmatic approach as a whole.
During the podcast, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said Villanova coach Jay Wright deserves credit for the success of the current Big East. And he said it has nothing to do with the Wildcats winning a national title.
He said he still remembers the first Big East meeting when the current 10 coaches got together at the Final Four before the start of their inaugural season five years ago.
Willard said Wright stood up in the room and said if the Big East is going to work, “we need to root for each other and we can’t be on the recruiting trail killing each other. Everybody has to buy in.’’
Willard said all the Big East coaches were immediately in full agreement, they can’t be nasty to each other. They had to be in this together.
“We’re really rooting for everyone now and hoping everyone is successful,’’ said Willard. “We all get along extremely well. I look back at that meeting and I don’t think if Jay stood up we would have the same comraderie we have today.’”
That attitude has paid off. The Big East sent 70 percent of its teams to the 2017 NCAA tournament. It’s early, but it looks like six or seven teams will dance in 2018.
Seton Hall will almost certainly be one of them. Delgado, averaging 13.7 points and 11.5 rebounds, is the interior anchor. Rodriguez, the team’s leading scorer and go-to closer, is averaging 18.6 points. Myles Powell and Khadeen Carrington are overqualified as third and fourth options. The Pirates’ depth isn’t a strong suit, but their top four is legitimate. It competes with anyone in the Big East – including Villanova. While the Wildcats’ depth separates them, the Pirates should finish top-three in the league. And the Big East is a top-tier conference.
Seton Hall has a clear identity, the first sign of a well-coached team. The Pirates mash foes on the glass; they retrieve 37 percent of their own misses, a top-10 mark. Willard knows he has one of the most physical interior players in the nation in Delgado, and he’s devised a strategy to maximize that talent – the Pirates generate second and third possessions frequently. Combine that with stout defense and the Hall’s sneaky-good outside shooting – the Pirates make 37 percent of their own 3s – and you have a winning formula.
“I think one of the biggest things me and my staff realized about two or three years in was who we had to be, and what kind of players we had to get for our fan base,” Willard said on the podcast. “The type of basketball we play now is a hard-nosed, physical, old school style. We rebound, we defend. Sticking to that identity as a tough, hard-nosed team is something that fans in the northeast really appreciate.”
Fans don’t just appreciate winning; they appreciate how a team wins, especially if it’s done in a prideful way. It took longer than expected to get Seton Hall on a winning track, but here we are.
Willard is living proof that in an industry as inherently anxious as coaching, sometimes, patience and continuity trumps chasing the next shiny object.