He will not be Big East Coach of the Year.
He is not omnipresent on the interview circuit. It’s not trendy. And he engages in zero self-promotion.
But quietly, clinically, Kevin Willard could be doing the best job of his 12-year tenure with Seton Hall basketball.
Known as a defense-focused coach with a strength in off-season player development, Willard revamped the Pirates offense on the fly this winter after ace guard Bryce Aiken suffered a head injury. He’s been through a surprising series of bad breaks – season-ending injuries to Jahari Long and Brandon Weston, injuries that temporarily sidelined Jared Rhoden, Myles Cale, Ike Obiagu and Alexis Yetna, illness from Kadary Richmond and a difficult COVID recovery for Tyrese Samuel.
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Now the Hall (19-9 overall, 10-8 Big East) has clinched a league record .500 or better for the seventh straight year, posted its sixth NCAA tournament season since 2015 and looks like a dangerous team to heading to Creighton (20-9, 12-6) for Saturday’s regular season finale (2:30 p.m., Fox). They have won seven of their last nine contests, with the only losses coming at Villanova and Connecticut by a total of 11 points.
“What really helped me is that I have an older group,” Willard said. “We haven’t changed anything defensively. What we really focused on, what we had to do, was change on the fly offensively. We created a whole new offense when we saw that Bryce was really struggling with his concussion.
The biggest change was moving postgraduate guard Jamir Harris into a bigger role as a backup playmaker — and sometimes playing Richmond and Harris together.
“Kadary knows where Jamir is, understands what a weapon he can be, that he can really space the floor,” Willard said. “So I think this training with Jared and Myles is going to be really good.”
Willard decided he needed Harris or junior forward Tray Jackson on the floor at all times. They’re the best 3-point threats on the team with Aiken out.
Their mere presence opens up avenues for Richmond to drive or perform the pick-and-roll, which he has been performing very well lately.
“I pretty much threw away half my game card and put in eight new games,” Willard said. “Having an older team, our concepts haven’t changed dramatically, but our games have. They did a great job of figuring out how we needed to play a little differently without Bryce and with (Richmond) there more.
Screening, spacing and ball movement have improved. Dribbling has decreased. A higher percentage of stares ensued. But not all adjustments could be made in the laboratory. The personalities had to mesh. It wasn’t easy to mix four Pirate stalwarts with two guys who played sparingly last year and three established transfers.
Talent won out for the first two months, but when the dice came out multiple times in a row, it tested everyone’s resolve. Coaches have to make tough decisions during tough times, like how hard it is to train. Over the past few years, as the wear and tear of a season has taken its toll, Willard has faded. On the other hand, he pushed this group pretty hard, partly because of the need to set stuff up, but also because he felt the guys would respond to “go after it”, as he likes to put it. .
How many big majors could take the loss of their best guard and put him together for a 7-2 run through the teeth of the league schedule? They don’t hand out coaching awards for a third of the season, but Hall play is the only award Willard needs.
“We are starting to become a very good team again,” he said.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and college basketball since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 Voters. Contact him at [email protected]