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Seton Hall becoming a force in the Big East

1/4/2012

Beating Connecticut was nothing.

For Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, the biggest accomplishment of an eventful Tuesday evening was getting his sons to go to bed after the Pirates win over the defending national champion Huskies.

“It was a nightmare,” chuckled Willard, during an interview with ESPN.com Wednesday morning. “They were having a tough time sleeping.”

Colin Willard, who is five, and his three-year-old brother, Chase, are too young to grasp the magnitude of Tuesday’s win. Still, in the hours after the final horn, they were just as wired up as their dad.

“They got a high-five from the Pirate,” Willard said. “High-fiving the Pirate and eating popcorn ... that’s all they could talk about. It’s the little things that gets those guys excited.”

Until this season, there wasn’t much else.

Tuesday’s beatdown of eighth-ranked Connecticut marked Seton Hall’s first win against the Huskies in 11 years. The Pirates are now 13-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big East -- not bad for a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006. It’s last Sweet 16 appearance came in 2000.

A year ago Seton Hall finished 13-18 in its first season under Willard, who spent three seasons as Iona’s head coach prior to his arrival in South Orange.

“The buzz around here is starting to pick up,” said Willard, whose team will likely crack the top 25 this week. “That’s good for our guys. They’re starting to get their due recognition.”

When Willard took the job in the spring of 2010, the Pirates didn’t even have a strength coach. He said there was no summer workout program in place, and his roster featured just four returning players.

Granted, they were good ones.

Jeremy Hazell and Jeff Robinson were the top two scoring threats on last year’s team, but things soured when Hazell was forced to miss 13 games with a broken right wrist.

“Last year we designed an offense for Jeremy, because he was such a great weapon,” Willard said. “Then we lost him three games into the season. We had to scrap all that and try to put something together that didn’t work really well. We got Jeremy back and tried to go back to the original package. It was just a cluster.”

Even without Hazell and Robinson, this season has gone much more smoothly. Forward Herb Pope and point guard Jordan Theodore -- the other two players Willard inherited -- are having All-Big East-caliber seasons.

Pope is averaging 18.3 points and 10.7 rebounds while Theodore is scoring 16 points a game while dishing out 7.3 assists. Last season the twosome combined to average 20.8 points.

Pope’s story is particularly inspiring, considering he’s almost died twice in the last six years. Pope was shot four times at a party during his senior year of high school, and in 2010 he collapsed after a workout because of an irregular heart condition.

Willard said he couldn’t be more impressed with the chemistry Pope and Theodore have developed on the court. He compared Theodore to Scott Machado, the point guard he coached for two years at Iona. Machado is averaging 10.3 assists this season for the Gaels.

“It’s a very simplistic game plan,” Willard said. “Get the ball to Jordan and then have Jordan get the ball to Herb. The offense goes through Herb. The guys know who is going to get the shots. Everyone else is doing a great job of picking their spots.”

Seton Hall also boasts one of the Big East’s top defenders in Fuquan Edwin, who is tied for the national lead in steals with 3.1 per game. Sophomore Patrik Auda chips in 8.3 points per game for one of the younger teams in the league. Other than Theodore and Pope, all of the Pirates’ key players are freshmen and sophomores. There isn’t a junior on the roster.

For the most part, it hasn’t mattered.

Other than a Nov. 20 loss to Northwestern, Seton Hall won every game on a nonconference schedule that also included Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton and Saint Joseph’s. It was a relatively soft slate, and it seemed as if things may catch up with the Pirates after they opened Big East play with a 26-point loss to Syracuse on Dec. 28.

“After that game,” Willard said, “I went into the locker room and said, ‘All right fellas, let’s get on the bus and get out of here. We won’t watch the film. Every once in a while in this league, you’re going to get blown out.’

“But as I was watching the film on the way home on the bus, I got really (mad). Syracuse played really well, but I just didn’t think we competed. We got back at 5 a.m. and were watching film as a team by 11 a.m. A lot of guys were embarrassed with the way we played and represented ourselves.”

Apparently a spark was lit, because the next day Seton Hall went out and stomped a West Virginia team that nearly beat No. 5 Baylor and owns a win over No. 22 Kansas State. The 67-48 win set the tone of the Connecticut game.

And hopefully, Willard said, for the rest of the season.

Seton Hall’s next six games -- at home against DePaul, Notre Dame and Louisville and on the road against Providence, Villanova and South Florida -- all look winnable.

“This is a steppingstone,” Pope told the Newark-Star Ledger after Tuesday’s win. “We want to continue to grow and take us from a bottom-of-the-basement team in the Big East, to at least the middle of the pack.

“We’re not even saying we have to be at the top, but just put us in the pack. We don’t even care if people are talking about us. The longer we go under the radar, the easier it’s going to be for us.”