Steve Masiello faces off against friend and former co-worker Kevin Willard for first time as head coach as Manhattan battles Seton Hall Saturday. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
When Manhattan and Seton Hall take the floor Saturday afternoon, the contest at the Prudential Center will mark more than just the last non-conference game of the season for both teams.
Shortly after noon, the last two local teams to win an NCAA Tournament game will be trying to outdo one another, a far cry from the scene in Raleigh on March 18, 2004; when Seton Hall defeated Arizona to earn a second-round meeting with Mike Krzyzewski and Duke just hours after Manhattan celebrated then-coach Bobby Gonzalez's 41st birthday with a resounding upset of nationally-ranked Florida, a No. 5 seed in the tournament. Speaking of Gonzalez, it was Seton Hall for whom the Jaspers' fourth-winningest all-time head coach left the Bronx, but not before scoring a road victory against the Pirates at the Meadowlands in 2002-03 in the centerpiece of a 15-game win streak that led to the program's second Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship.
If that is not enough, Steve Masiello and Kevin Willard, the two current stewards of the respective programs in Riverdale and South Orange, both worked on the same staff under Hall of Famer Rick Pitino at Louisville for two seasons before Willard started his head coaching career at Iona in 2007. Lastly, when Willard took over at Seton Hall in 2010; ironically enough as the successor to Gonzalez, Masiello was among the finalists to replace Willard in New Rochelle before Tim Cluess was ultimately hired.
The history between the two schools comes full circle Saturday, and so too does the first meeting between Masiello and Willard as head coaches, which can be; in some parallels, be described as a matchup of teacher meeting student in this clash of two longtime friends.
"Kevin's actually the first guy who really taught me how to scout, and understand basketball from a scouting perspective my first two years at Louisville," Masiello said of Willard, who had already spent four years on Pitino's Louisville staff by the time Masiello arrived in 2005. "I think Kevin's one of the most brilliant basketball minds I've ever been around. He's a phenomenal coach, a terrific technician of the game. He taught me so much in those 24 months with him that I have carried on to how I do things in my program today."
"From a preparation standpoint -- obviously we were under Coach Pitino -- but Kevin groomed me on how to scout and how to do things from a preparation standpoint. I have so much respect for him and not only the job that he does, but the job he has done at Louisville, at Iona, and at Seton Hall."
Kevin Willard faces Steve Masiello for first time Saturday, over a decade after the two worked together on staff at Louisville. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
Across the court, Willard did not go into as much detail on his past history with Masiello, but did display his trademark dry humor when asked of how this contest with the Jaspers was conceived and consummated.
"I didn't want to play him, but I feel like I'm an overly nice guy," he quipped. "So I said I'd play him. That's how it came about. He needed a game."
"This game basically came about when we were on an Under Armour retreat in Puerto Rico," Masiello clarified, revealing another common thread between the two programs, who share Under Armour as an apparel outfitter. "We got to talking, and it was something that I thought would be really great for our program to have an opportunity to play against an NCAA Tournament team that's had the success Kevin has had in the last two years."
The visiting coach is already highlighting the potential of greater things that can come after facing the Pirates, who are ranked in both the Associated Press and ESPN Top 25 polls, and is interested to see how his Jaspers handle the Prudential Center atmosphere. His counterpart, however, is more concerned about the present value of this last non-conference tuneup, and the benefits it can provide Seton Hall before Thursday's Big East opener against Creighton.
"I thought, going into the Christmas break, it would actually be a good game for us," Willard said of facing Manhattan. "He (Masiello) presses and goes to a zone, his teams play hard, they're physical, they rebound, and they play hard-nosed defense. I thought it was going to be a good test for us going into Christmas."