With a full roster for most of 11-2 start, Kevin Willard leads Seton Hall into matchup with undefeated Villanova in Pirates' first game since resounding win over St. John's. (Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News)
Kevin Willard has heard the criticism before.
It has come from a bevy of different factors, from his inability to avoid the injury bug, to complaints regarding the difficulty of past schedules, to the lack of depth on his roster. But since arriving at Seton Hall in 2010, he has been trusted with the patience to rebuild the program into the Big East powerhouse it had been during his adolescence, and even into his early adult years.
The show of extended faith appears to have paid off this season, as Willard has guided the Pirates to an 11-2 start, the most recent entry into the win column being a decisive 78-67 home victory over local rival St. John's on Wednesday afternoon that saw Seton Hall not only adapt to the faster, transition-oriented style played by the Red Storm, but beat their opponent at their own game as the contest progressed.
"I think everyone understands we're deeper now," Willard told a throng of media gathered in the Prudential Center press room after winning Seton Hall's Big East opener. "We're able to handle one injury. We can't handle another one."
What made the victory even more monumental was the absence of Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall's highly touted, former McDonald's All-American, recruit from Coney Island, who missed his second consecutive game Wednesday due to a stress fracture in his foot. In the absence of their rookie sensation, two of his other classmates stepped up, with Khadeen Carrington's 11 points off the bench supplementing a double-double from forward Angel Delgado, who contributed 13 points and 12 rebounds.
"When you're missing a guy like Isaiah," said sophomore guard Jaren Sina, who had 14 points of his own against the Red Storm, including four three-pointers, "it really throws a monkey wrench in. Our focus and our intensity in practice this week really carried over."
Although he may still be regarded as the token shooter on this team, it may be Sina more than anyone else who has captured the attention of his opponents by being able to not only score when needed, but also to set up the plays that get the Pirates over the hump.
"Like my dad (Mergin, who coached Jaren in high school at Gill-St. Bernard's) says, 'you're only as good as your last game,'" Sina said. "Coach (Willard) always talks about me being an X-factor. When my confidence is high, I think it helps all the other guys."
Seton Hall will need Sina's confidence to reach a crescendo on Saturday, where the Pirates will have an undefeated Villanova team awaiting them on the Prudential Center floor. The last time these two teams met, it was Sina who hit a clutch three in the final minute of regulation to set the stage for Sterling Gibbs' buzzer-beating jumper to upset the Wildcats in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals last March, costing Villanova; ranked third in the nation on that afternoon at Madison Square Garden, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and earning Seton Hall its first-ever victory against a team occupying one of the top three spots in either the Associated Press or USA Today coaches' polls.
"It starts with us trying to develop that chemistry," Gibbs remarked following the win over St. John's. The point guard, whose 25 points, eight assists, and zero turnovers against the Red Storm prompted Steve Lavin to call his performance a "masterpiece," was also candid in addressing the hot streak with which his team has opened the 2014-15 campaign.
"We have a little buzz already," Gibbs conceded. "This is only the first game of the Big East. We're not going to celebrate it like we won the national championship."
Seton Hall may have caught the eye of the nation, but as their coach has reminded them, the need to repeat in their encore is critical.
"We've got to back this up now," Willard advised. "These guys have to come out with the same energy and same focus for a good Villanova team."
Jay Wright's Wildcats, the sixth-ranked team in the country at the moment, are 13-0 and possess three impressive nonconference wins against the likes of VCU, Michigan, and Syracuse, with the first two coming at a neutral site in the Legends Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Furthermore, Villanova brings nearly everyone back from last season, including their backcourt trio of Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis, not to mention the physically imposing interior pairing of JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu. Regardless, the faith that was shown in Willard's ability to turn Seton Hall into a contender is expressed equally by the coach toward the veteran players on his roster, charged with the added task of showing the ropes to a group of freshmen who are making their debut in the Big East trenches.
"It's nice to look out there and see guys out there that have been through it," Willard admitted. "I have a lot of trust in my guys right now."
The coach is not the only one who trusts his players. Slowly but surely, the fans have taken notice of the resurgence in the Garden State, and have begun the gradual process of establishing a true homecourt advantage at the Prudential Center, where the Pirates are 7-0 this season. On average, Seton Hall has drawn 6,713 patrons into Newark, with four of their seven home games seeing crowds of 7,000 or more, highlighted by the 8,710 who witnessed an 81-54 drubbing of in-state rival Rutgers, and a gathering of 9,183 on hand to see The Hall dispose of a St. John's team that entered New Jersey as the No. 15 team in the nation. Saturday's showdown with Villanova was announced as a sellout on December 23, just the second time such an occurrence has been seen since leaving what was then Continental Airlines Arena in 2007, with the only other capacity crowd being the February 2013 game that marked Syracuse's final visit to Seton Hall as a member of the Big East.
"What I love about this area, and always have," said Willard, "(is that) I think people appreciate good basketball. Our crowd this year has been tremendous. The crowd has really been engaged, and (it has) helped us a lot."
Speaking impartially, Willard offered this nugget to the media in regard to his own team:
"If I were a college basketball fan," he intimated, "I'd come watch this team play all the time. They're a lot of fun to watch."