Thursday, February 4, 2016

Kevin Willard enjoying coaching Seton Hall during "roller coaster" season

Kevin Willard and Seton Hall have emerged from last year's morass stronger and wiser, as NCAA Tournament is clearly within reach for Pirates. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)

NEWARK, NJ -- Kevin Willard has seen and heard of the NCAA Tournament talk surrounding his Seton Hall team, now 16-6 and 6-4 in Big East play after a commanding 79-62 victory against Marquette Wednesday at the Prudential Center. But the sixth-year coach, whose patience has been tested several times throughout his tenure, is unfazed by the media attention, choosing instead to focus on the progress his group has made from a tumultuous end to last season.

"No, not at all," Willard frankly answered when asked if he addressed the possibility of being among the field of 68 with his team. "Embrace the process, one day at a time."

Part of that process has seen Seton Hall evolve from a precocious overachiever at the beginning of conference play last year, led by a trio of freshmen and a senior point guard in Sterling Gibbs, only to see a promising start whose pinnacle was a No. 19 national ranking come crashing down amid controversy both on the floor and in the locker room, centered around whether Gibbs or highly touted newcomer Isaiah Whitehead ultimately had the keys to the car that was the Seton Hall offense.

This season has seen last year's rookies become sophomores. Gibbs has moved on to the University of Connecticut, replaced by the calming and motivating presence of fifth-year senior Derrick Gordon, a New Jersey native coming home for one more moment in the sun. And the turmoil that plagued last year's well-documented collapse has been supplanted by a synergy and two-way stream of endless confidence that belies the tender age of Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Ismael Sanogo, and Angel Delgado.

"The difference in Isaiah this year and last year is he would not have bounced back from that Villanova game," Willard said after Whitehead, whose 21 points Wednesday evening led all scorers, capped off a third consecutive stellar performance following a hard loss on January 20 where, despite his valiant rally to get the Pirates back into the game against Jay Wright's Wildcats, he and Seton Hall fell one point short. "He has bounced back, he's been great in practice, he's been great in film. I think he's shown a level of maturity that he understands every once in a while, you're not going to play great, but you've got to be able to bounce back, and I think that's the difference between all of them, all five of those sophomores."

"They've all understood that it's not life or death anymore," Willard elaborated. "Last year, they just didn't understand the league. They didn't understand if you played bad, it wasn't the end of the world. This league will make you play bad once in a while. You've just got to mentally prepare yourself to be able to play the next game. That's where they've taken it to a different level."

For a team who entered conference play with a 10-2 record highlighted by a thrilling overtime victory against Wichita State, not to mention a home win against a "power five" opponent in Georgia, Willard has done a remarkable job of remaining grounded with his roster, not getting too high off monumental victories such as those. Nor has the coach looked ahead to upcoming battles against the likes of Providence and Xavier, both of whom have been ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press and ESPN coaches' polls during the year, and both of whom visit the Prudential Center later this month.

"We haven't had great success this year," he admitted, remaining pragmatic when assessing how the season has fared to date. "We're 6-4 in the league now. Last year, it was like a skyrocket, then a skyfall. This year, we're just like a roller coaster, like a kiddie roller coaster. We're up, we're down, we're up, we're down, and that's good. That's the way I want these guys to be."

Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski, no stranger to a team blended with young talent and experience, as he himself has a junior leader in Luke Fischer teaming with potential NBA lottery pick Henry Ellenson down low to offset a stable of guards that are still learning on the job, believes Seton Hall has taken last season's adversity and used it for the better, proclaiming the Pirates to be what Willard will not buy into just yet, a team whose name will be announced by Greg Gumbel on Selection Sunday.

"I admire the Seton Hall kids," Wojciechowski said, a compliment that echoed the class and grace of his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski. "A year ago at this time, they had their noses rubbed in it as freshmen. They've been hardened from it and it's galvanized them, so I give those kids a lot of credit, because they're playing really well. They're a surefire NCAA Tournament team."

For now, though, all that matters in South Orange is living in the present. With Georgetown, a team hungry to shake off a rocky non-conference season and prove they belong among the Big East's elite as well, coming to town Saturday night, what happens in March is the among the far reaches of Willard's mind. What he did do, though, was reflect on the team he has led to this point, and what they have done for him.

"I will say this: I enjoy coaching these guys every second I'm with them," he said with a proud, beaming smile. "I enjoy being around them."

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