NEW YORK – UConn coach Dan Hurley had just trained his team to victory over Seton Hall in Big East Tournament quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden Thursday night as he opened his press conference by crediting Pirates coach Kevin Willard. After all, they are similar characters. Both are in their 40s, prone to shrewd sarcasm and have a burning desire to dominate the hyper-competitive Big East.
“Credit Seton Hall,” said Hurley, Jersey City native and former Seton Hall guard. “What Kevin has done with those guys this year through, just through losing guys and the type of season he’s had in the Big East this year, and [I] just want to wish the guys good luck next week [NCAA] Tournament.”
Willard, 45, has Seton Hall (21-10, 11-8 Big East) in the Big Dance for the fifth time in the last six tournaments. The is the No. 8 seed in the South Regional and will meet the No. 9 TCU Friday night in San Diego (21:57 ET, truTV).
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Willard is back in the big dance despite losing one of his key players, Bryce Aiken, for the season due to another concussionand in spite of one COVID break in December that affected the team for several weeks subsequently. It should actually be Willard’s sixth NCAA tournament in seven years, but the 2020 event – where the Myles Powell-led Pirates were a potential Final Four team – was canceled by the pandemic.
“My employees did a great job this year,” Willard said Sunday on a Zoom. “They really did. I have Grant Billmeier, who should soon be the head coach. I think the fact that I had such a good staff and we were able to navigate the disruption much better than we have done before, I think it was huge.
“And I think having a veteran group, guys who had been through it, I think they helped me navigate it tremendously. They helped me navigate it. They were able to come back. “things started after the COVID break, and I think their management was really good. I think it was an incredible team effort from top to bottom.”
The creation of Willard’s success this season dates back to last year, when they fell short of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament despite Sandro Mamukelashvili, who won part of the honor Big East Player of the Year and now plays for defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Knowing Willard desperately needed help at the point guard position, Willard hit the NCAA transfer portal hard, adding North Brunswick native and former Patrick School guard Jamir Harris and Syracuse transfer. Kadary Richmond. Willard strengthened his appetite by snatching South Florida transfer Alexis Yetna to join Missouri transfer Tray Jackson and the returning big men Ike Obiagu and Tyrese Samuel.
Willard undoubtedly had the deepest and most experienced team of his time at Seton Hall, which began in 2010. The Pirates’ average age of 21.3 made them the 10th oldest team in Division I this season.
They moved out of the gates and went 9-1 in the non-conference with victories over Texas, Michigan, Rutgers, Wagner (who ended up playing in the Northeast Conference championship game) and Yale (who won the Ivy League bids by beating Princeton on Sunday). They topped as No. 15 in the AP poll.
Then COVID hit.
The Pirates had to cancel matches in December with local rivals Iona and St. John’s due to COVID hitting the team. Jared Rhoden, the team’s best player and a first-team All-Big East selection, was struck by the virus, saying he was “stuck in a room” at home on Long Island “for about 10 days.” He was able to do push-ups and lift weights, but he could not run much or do many cardio exercises.
“I’m a very hard working guy, so for me it was just driving me crazy to be in one room for a while,” Rhoden said.
Samuel, meanwhile, had to be quarantined at home in Canada for a few weeks.
“I know we’re all had our own individual struggles,” Rhoden said, “but I think it collectively derailed us a bit. Just not being able to practice, not being able to see each other physically, it was a bit it was a kind of dark period for us because many of us probably had PTSD that affected us from the previous years with COVID and I think that kind of derailed us again so we were a little afraid of what the effects might be. “
When the Pirates finally returned to the field on December 29, 17 days after the Rutgers victory, they were reduced to eight players because Obiagu and Samuel remained in the COVID protocols. They lost by only five points, 70-65, to Providence, the eventual Big East championships in regular season.
Three days later, with the two big ones out again, they lost at home to Villanova, 73-67, at the Prudential Center. The loss dropped them 0-2 in the Big East for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign.
Had they split or won the two games, they probably would have had a higher seed in the Big East Tournament, and perhaps they would have gone deeper in the conference tournament.
Still, when Samuel and Obiagu returned and the team was at full strength, they appeared to have returned to their pre-COVID form.
On January 8, they beat Hurley and UConn, 90-87, in overtime at the Prudential Center in a match where Richmond dominated and scored career-high 27 points, and Aiken delivered 22 with seven assists.
“They got a lot of depth, physically impressive,” Hurley said after the match. “They got a lot of firepower on the perimeter, well-trained. They’re a title contender, just like we are.”
A week later, the season took another disastrous turn.
In the final seconds of a match on Marquette, which Mamukelashvili saw from the pitch, Marquette’s Greg Elliott appeared to elbow Aiken in the nose. Aiken, who was whistled off for a foul, was shaken up after the game.
With 1.8 seconds left, Elliott made 1-of-2 penalty throws to lead Marquette to victory.
Little did anyone know at the time, but it would be the last game the 25-year-old Aiken played all season.
It turned out to be the second concussion in his Seton Hall career, and Although Willard suggested in the following weeks that Aiken could return to court, he never did. Asked if there was any chance Aiken would play in San Diego, Willard said, “No.”
The loss of Aiken, who stays with the team in streetwear and helps his teammates warm up before games, may have turned the Pirates from a team capable of winning several games in the NCAA Tournament into a team that could be lucky to win one. . He was their closer, a person who was able to take over fights late with his 3-point shooting and ability to change the pace of the attack. He was the Big East’s leading goal scorer with 19.5 points per game when he fell.
Yet the fact that the pirates still have both Richmond, who has struggled with a sprained right thumb, and Harris, who beat the battle-winning 3-pointer against Georgetown in the first round of the Big East Tournament, that means they still have depth on the point. They have won nine of their last 12 matches on their way into the tournament.
And it goes back to Willard reading up on guards via the transfer portal after last season. Harris, who was the third-string point guard when the season began, has had to play a much bigger role without Aiken.
“I just knew I would be prepared for any progress I wanted, but in the heat of the moment I was not thinking about it,” Harris told NJ Advance Media, “I was just thinking about [Aiken]. I know he loves basketball and would love to be out there with us. So when it became official that he was out, I just wanted to be able to step into the role he had and play more with the ball, which is definitely something I am comfortable doing. ”
Harris has never been to the NCAA Tournament, and one of the reasons he returned to Seton Hall was to play in March Madness.
“It will definitely be a dream come true for me to be able to participate in the tournament,” he said. “I have not had that experience yet.”
As for Willard, his co-coaches fully understand how good a coach he is and what he has had to overcome this season.
He has been linked with various Power-Five conference jobs over the years, rejecting Virginia Tech in 2019 before the school hired Mike Young. (It turned out to be a brilliant move as Young led the Hokies to their first ACC Tournament Championship with Saturday night’s victory over No. 1 seed Duke).
Willard has been associated with the job in Maryland since the school fired Mark Turgeon back in December. It must be seen if he is at all interested in the job. He has two teenage sons, and his wife and family may not want to leave their home in Westfield and the life they have built there.
Asked if Seton Hall had already extended Willard or given him a pay rise, sporting director Bryan Felt said the school did not comment on or confirm contract information.
Still, expect Willard to remain attached to higher-profile jobs, especially if the Pirates win a game or two in March Madness.
“Listen, I think any big opening Kevin Willard’s name will definitely be there,” Iona coach Rick Pitino, Willard’s former boss, told NJ Advance Media last month. “He has done it, he is not afraid to play against anyone, he is very creative offensively, he is healthy in defense. They rebounder well, they are tough kids. His kids are tough, so I think any job, no matter what level, any bigger, bigger job, I think Kevin Willard will be mentioned in the top three. ”
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Adam Zagoria is a freelance reporter covering Seton Hall and NJ college basketball for NJ Advance Media.