Monday, February 29, 2016

Seton Hall's faith in Willard continues to pay off

It may have taken six years, but Kevin Willard is finally paying dividends at Seton Hall after a tumultuous last two seasons put him on hot seat. (Photo courtesy of Seton Hall University Athletics)

Following a late-season swoon that erased Seton Hall's positive momentum that peaked in a No. 19 national ranking, Kevin Willard made a vow to athletic director Pat Lyons.

"If you stick with me," the coach told his boss, "I promise you: We're going to win next year."

Twenty-one wins later, the most recent of which ranks among the biggest in Willard's six years in South Orange, as his Pirates led wire-to-wire against a Xavier team ranked fifth in the country and coming off an authoritative takedown of No. 1 Villanova four days before, Willard is more than making good on his offseason pact. With two games remaining before the Big East converges upon Madison Square Garden for its annual conference championship, Seton Hall is essentially a good bet to end its ten-year dry spell of NCAA Tournament appearances, as much as Willard deflects any talk of that white elephant in the room.

"We've had some good wins in this building," Willard conceded, reflecting on the significance of Sunday's 90-81 triumph over Xavier that was much more convincing than the final score would indicate. "We've had some bad losses too. It's been a long process. It's not an easy process when you take over a high-level job. I think you go into it, you're stupid, you're naive, you do things that you can't do. I give Pat Lyons credit. He could have got rid of me last year. I trust these kids, I know these kids, so I really give it to (president) Dr. (Gabriel) Esteban and Pat for not making the change."

So too does a Seton Hall fan base that has clamored for a winner for a span of nearly two decades. Tommy Amaker rebounded from the debacle that was the George Blaney era to guide the Pirates to the NCAA Tournament, as did Louis Orr. South Orange looked poised to reach another field of 68 under Bobby Gonzalez as well, as the charismatic and energetic coach had Seton Hall trending in a positive direction before being shown the door in 2010. But while Willard continues to face criticism for failing to break through in his first five seasons, and skepticism of whether or not he eventually will, the coach stood by his convictions, and those who matter most.

"I have a group of guys that have supported me since I've been here," he humbly stated before breaking into a satisfied grin. "They've never been skeptical. They've been terrific, they've been loyal, they've understood the process. I see guys on the board, (of trustees) I see guys that donated money when things weren't going well, and they never lost faith."

"He's one of the main reasons why we go out there and play hard," said Isaiah Whitehead, whose recruitment last spring and emergence as a Big East Player of the Year contender has been directly proportional to Seton Hall's resurgence, of Willard. "He influences how good we are, and hereally has confidence in us no matter what we do. He's behind us, and we've got to do the same for him."

"He's such a great person, he's such a great coach," sophomore forward Desi Rodriguez gushed, echoing his high school and college teammate's sentiment toward their coach. "He's taught me a lot since I've been here. He just talks to me a lot, putting me in the right places on the court, just great advice. He wants the best for everybody, and we want the best for him, too."

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