College Basketball Nation: Kevin Willard
NEW YORK -- New Big East, same old Madness.
Less than 24 hours into the 2014 Big East tournament, we’ve already had two stunning upsets and lost the top seed.
On Wednesday night, Georgetown was defeated by DePaul for the first time in 20 years. On Thursday afternoon, No. 3-ranked Villanova fell to Seton Hall 64-63 on a buzzer-beater by sophomore guard Sterling Gibbs.
For Seton Hall, it’s the first win in school history against a team ranked in the top three in the Associated Press poll. The Pirates had been 0-30 against such teams.
Seton Hall had just 15 hours to rest and prepare for Villanova following its 51-50 victory over Butler on Wednesday night.
Perhaps the short turnaround helped. Villanova trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half before scoring the final six to make it 34-26 at intermission. The Wildcats shot 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) and missed seven free throws in the first half.
A 16-0 Villanova run fueled by several open-court steals and scores put the Wildcats back in front with just more than eight minutes remaining. But the Pirates did not fold. The game came down to the final minute, when the lead changed hands four times.
Josh Hart's layup with 41 seconds to play put Villanova up 61-59. Freshman Jaren Sina buried a 3-pointer from the corner 20 seconds later to give Seton Hall a 62-61 lead.
Darrun Hilliard's floater in the lane rolled in with 11 seconds left, pushing the Wildcats back ahead 63-62. And then Gibbs hit the biggest shot of them all -- a step-back jumper from the top of the key as time expired.
“It was supposed to get in my hands, and I was supposed to create a shot for my teammates or create a shot for myself,” Gibbs said. “I just stepped back and hit the jumper.”
Seton Hall finished the regular season in eighth place in the 10-team Big East but has played nine games decided by a single point this season, going 4-5. The Pirates also have two three-point losses, one in overtime and the other in double overtime.
“One of the referees told me the other night, he said he’s never seen a team go through what we’ve gone through and still come back and play hard every night,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. “I just think it’s the character of these guys.”
The new Big East now has its first signature moment, and Seton Hall has a berth in the Big East tourney semifinals for the first time since 2001. The Pirates will play either No. 4 seed Providence or No. 5 seed St. John’s on Friday.
Seton Hall was swept by St. John's in the regular season, but both losses were by -- you guessed it! -- one point. The Pirates split with the Friars, winning by one in double overtime and then losing by five.
“I really thought if we could get past Butler, we could beat anybody,” Willard said. “I was really scared about getting past Butler. It’s a tough matchup for us. They defend really well on us, and I thought if we could get past them, we could get some momentum and just keep going.”
Villanova, whose three previous losses this season came against ranked teams Syracuse and Creighton (twice), is still projected to be a No. 1 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi -- as of now. But that could change as the rest of Championship Week unfolds.
“This was not about 1-seeds, 2-seeds,” Wright said. “This was about we wanted to come to Madison Square Garden and win the Big East tournament. Winning the Big East tournament would mean much more to us than a 1-seed.
“This is a great tournament. We want to be here until Saturday. I think we’re more disappointed about that. The NCAA tournament seedings? My belief is 1, 2, 3 -- it doesn’t matter that much. You’re going to play great teams.”
This summer, Georgia made one of the stranger and more random offseason personnel announcements in recent college hoops memory. In late July, incoming freshman and Switzerland native Dusan Langura, was injured in an explosion during a military training exercise. Since World War II, Wikipedia soon clarified, all Swiss males between 18 and 50 have been required to enlist in the nation's army and maintain their uniform, weapon, and ammunition in their homes. You know, just in case.
Langura eventually made it to Georgia, but his story was a reminder of a few things. American college basketball is a thoroughly international game, and there are still plenty of places in the world -- even banking powers in the developed world that haven't engaged in armed conflict since 1815 -- where the idea of being a member of the armed services is a mere fact of life.
Israel is one such place, and far more famous for it than the Swiss. At the age of 18, Israeli citizens are required to report for Israeli Defense Forces enlistment and training. Males are required to serve for three years; females for two. As the Star-Ledger's Brendan Prunty reports, one of those males is Seton Hall guard Tom Maayan, whose redeployment to the IDF cut short his basketball career in rather sudden and emotional fashion Tuesday night.
Why so sudden? Maayan was originally ordered into basic training this summer. But through "lobbying and politicking with the Israeli government," Prunty writes, SHU and Maayan's guardian were able to get an exemption to play for the Pirates this season. In November, that exemption was shortened to 120 days. Seton Hall kept up its push, but the reprieve officially ended Tuesday night after the Pirates' win over NJIT. Coach Kevin Willard made the news public after informing an "emotional" locker room.
"I think the yo-yoing was tough for everybody," Willard said after in the hallway of the Prudential Center. "It was tough for him -- those are his teammates, his family. His extended family. Leaving them wasn't easy. It wasn't easy last time and it wasn't easy this time, either. But it is what it is."
"We knew about it, but it was definitely tough," [teammate Sterling] Gibbs said. "Tommy's like a brother to us. It's like losing one of your brothers."
Unlike last time, the departure will end Maayan's career. Maayan didn't speak with the media, but he seemed to take a positive tone on Twitter.
unfortunately It was my last game as a pirate..Love my teamates coaches and the Shu fam! Thanks for all the love! #SHUBB#PIRATE4LIFE— Tom Maayan (@TomMaayan) December 11, 2013
Good luck, Tom.
There are coaching trees and then there is the forest birthed by Rick Pitino. Imagine crossing a redwood with a sequoia. And then adding the Rockefeller Christmas tree on top for good measure.
That gets you maybe a quarter of the way up the branches of Pitino’s tree. No fewer than 13 of his ex-assistants and/or players currently serve as college head coaches (Mick Cronin, Scott Davenport, Billy Donovan, Travis Ford, Marvin Menzies, Richard Pitino, Kareem Richardson, Steve Masiello, Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith, Reggie Theus, Kevin Willard, Sean Woods). And if you stretch the list to include former head coaches or current assistants, it goes on for miles.
Between them, Pitino’s disciples have four national championships of their own (two for Donovan, one each for Smith and Davenport). So trying to pick the best of this family tree is like trying to pick your favorite uncle. Highly subjective.
Consider this attempt just that, then -- an attempt to amass a list of the most successful ... with an out clause list of others who were left off.
1. Billy Donovan: Before he won two national titles at the University of Florida, Donovan was Billy the Kid, the feisty point guard who led Providence and Pitino to the Final Four in 1987. Two years later, Donovan and his mentor reconnected at the University of Kentucky, where Donovan cut his coaching teeth as an assistant until 1994. Embarking on his own as a head coach, first at Marshall and now at Florida, Donovan has rolled up 13 NCAA tournament bids and has been to at least the Elite Eight in five of the past six appearances.
2. Tubby Smith: Smith had the unenviable job of following in Pitino’s well-heeled footsteps at Kentucky, when Pitino’s one-time assistant returned to Lexington as head coach in 1997. Smith picked up right where his old boss left off, leading the Wildcats to their seventh national championship in his first season. Smith would go on to reach the 100-win mark faster than any other UK coach not named Adolph Rupp and collect five SEC titles. The former head coach at Tulsa and Georgia went on to Minnesota and is now at Texas Tech.
4. Jim O’Brien: The son-in-law of one Hall of Famer (Jack Ramsay), O’Brien would begin working alongside a future Hall of Famer in 1994, when he joined Pitino at Kentucky. Long a college coach in his own right, O’Brien helped Pitino usher the glory years back to Lexington and when Pitino jumped to the Boston Celtics, O’Brien went with him. Little did he know it was the beginning of his own career. It was O’Brien who would take over in Boston after Pitino epically flamed out, twice leading the Celtics to the playoffs. He’d then go on to two more NBA head-coaching jobs, with Philadelphia and Indiana, before retiring at the end of last season.
5. Herb Sendek: The master of his own pretty heavily limbed coaching tree, Sendek got his start under Pitino. The western Pennsylvania native joined the Providence staff as a graduate assistant before moving up to assistant coach. When Pitino left PC for Kentucky, Sendek went with him, spending four seasons with the Wildcats before launching his own head-coaching career. Sendek has gone from Miami (Ohio) to NC State to Arizona State and now has 20 years of head-coaching experience. He has made seven NCAA tournaments and has three conference coach of the year awards.
6. Frank Vogel: No one can trace their roots directly to Pitino quite as thoroughly as the Indiana Pacers head coach. After meeting Pitino at Five-Star camp in Pittsburgh, Vogel, then a student at Juniata College, decided he was transferring on the spot to Kentucky. He had no promise of anything from Pitino but after loitering around the gym for weeks, he got a two-week trial period helping out assistant Jim O’Brien. A year later he was a student manager, and after graduation served as a video coordinator. The coach was so impressed with Vogel’s abilities that when Pitino went on to the Boston Celtics, he brought Vogel with him, hiring him as the team’s video coordinator. Vogel would outlast Pitino in Boston, staying on as an assistant coach under O’Brien. Six years later, when O’Brien was fired at Indiana, Vogel was named the Pacers’ interim coach. This past season under Vogel, the Pacers made their first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2004.
7. Mick Cronin: The son of a head coach counts his father and Pitino as his two biggest mentors. He joined Pitino at Louisville in 2001 after five seasons at the University of Cincinnati under Bob Huggins. Eventually becoming Pitino’s right-hand man and associate coach, Cronin was lauded for his recruiting savvy and eventually parlayed that into a head-coaching job at Murray State. He led the Racers to two Ohio Valley titles and NCAA tourney appearances before leaving to lead his alma mater, Cincinnati. Cronin has been credited with reviving the Bearcats, who had just one returning player when he arrived on campus.
8. Ralph Willard: One of Pitino’s closest friends and confidants, Willard worked alongside the Hall of Famer in three different stretches -- first as an assistant with the Knicks (1987-1989), then later at Kentucky (1989-90) and finally, at Louisville (2009-2012). In between, Willard forged his own impressive career, serving as head coach at Holy Cross, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky. He had his best success at his alma mater, Holy Cross, leading the program to four NCAA tournament berths and amassing a 192-117 record at the Patriot League school.
9. Travis Ford: The beloved Kentucky point guard started his career at Missouri but transferred to his home state school because he liked the style of its head coach. That would be Rick Pitino. Ford, fashioned in the same spitfire image of Billy Donovan, would take the Wildcats to three NCAA tournaments. With all that UK love and his coach’s endorsement, Ford landed his first head-coaching gig at the tender age of 26, taking over at NAIA Campbellsville. That led to a job at Eastern Kentucky -- and EKU’s first NCAA berth in 25 years -- which led to a job at Pitino’s alma mater, UMass (and an Atlantic 10 title) and now to Oklahoma State.
10. Scott Davenport: Maybe not as well known as others on this list, Davenport is every bit as successful. In his eighth season at Division II Bellarmine, Davenport has taken a program that was sub-.500 before he arrived all the way to a national championship in 2011. The former high school coach made the jump to the college game in 1996, joining Denny Crum’s staff at Louisville. When Pitino came aboard in 2001, Davenport stayed on staff, working with Pitino until 2005, when he moved on to Bellarmine.
11. Marvin Menzies: As a longtime assistant coach, Menzies' resume went on for pages before he joined Pitino at Louisville in 2005. Menzies’ career had hopscotched from the high school ranks to junior college to San Diego State to USC to UNLV. After just two seasons alongside Pitino, Menzies was a head coach, taking over at New Mexico State. He has since led the Aggies to three WAC titles and three NCAA tournament berths.
Others to be considered: Cal State Northridge head coach Reggie Theus (Louisville assistant, 2003-05); Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard (Louisville assistant, 2001-07); Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey (played at Kentucky); former NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson (Providence and New York Knicks assistant).
After Syracuse’s 75-63 win over Seton Hall on Wednesday afternoon -- just the fourth game of a five-day event -- Jim Boeheim took nearly four minutes to answer what was, on the surface, a very simple question:
“Was there any different feeling for you walking into the building this morning?”
“Yeah, there was,” the Syracuse coach began. “In the locker room before the game, I was thinking about all the times coming here. I first came to the Garden when I was a sophomore in college -- the old, old Garden. Seems like about 50 years ago. Oh -- it was 50 years ago.”
That elicited chuckles in the packed interview room here at Madison Square Garden. But the room quickly fell silent again, as the Hall of Famer rambled on about the history of the Big East and his own career.
“Your whole life has been spent in this league, and the last 31 years coming to this building, that’s a lot. That’s a lot of memories, a lot of time.”
But Boeheim and his Orange will play at least one more game here, after wearing out the undermanned Pirates.
Seton Hall actually had a 10-point lead midway through the first half, after connecting on six of its first seven 3-point attempts. But James Southerland (20 points) enabled Syracuse to tie the game by intermission, making six treys of his own, five in the first 20 minutes.
Brandon Triche (17 points) and C.J. Fair (16 points, 8 rebounds) pushed the Orange over the hump in the second half. And the orchestrator throughout was sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who tied a Big East tournament record with 14 assists.
“Our offensive movement was the best it’s been probably all year,” Boeheim said. “Mike played, I think, his best game of the year.”
Syracuse (24-8, 11-7), which lost four of five to end the regular season, is looking to right the ship here in New York before next week’s NCAA tournament. And Triche, who had been mired in a shooting slump, shot 6-for-9 on Wednesday, including a key 3-pointer in the second half.
The normally stoic Triche screamed and pumped his fist after that shot went down. “I haven’t made a 3-pointer in like a month,” Triche said. “So I figured I’d celebrate a bit.”
The Orange, the No. 5 seed, next face No. 4 seed Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon. Pitt beat Syracuse on its home floor 65-55 back on Feb. 2, but Southerland was suspended for that game.
There were plenty of emotions on the Seton Hall side, too. The Pirates (15-18, 3-15) wrapped up a very difficult season, one marred by injuries up and down the roster.
Coach Kevin Willard essentially relied on just five players Wednesday, with his starters playing 182 of a possible 200 minutes. The Pirates hung tough -- the game was still tied with less than 13 minutes remaining -- before simply running out of gas.
“They played the same way they played all year,” Willard said. “They played with a lot of heart, a lot of pride.”
Sophomore guard Aaron Cosby scored a game-high 22 points. And the Pirates shot 10-for-20 from beyond the arc, including three treys from fifth-year senior Kyle Smyth.
Smyth broke down in tears when removed from the game in the final minutes, and was still choked up and red-eyed when facing the media.
“I think any collegiate athlete, when it comes to the end, it’s very emotional,” Smyth said. “Just all the emotions you run through five years in your head, everything that went on.”
Willard said he usually doesn’t get emotional at the end of a season. “But this one hurts because it was such a frustrating year,” Willard said. “I think I kind of knew how we could have been all year if we’d been healthy, and I feel bad for these guys because they really had to deal with a lot of negativity and a lot of frustration.
“So just proud of them. I really am. I hate losing, but I love these guys.”
The 34th Big East tournament -- the 31st at the Garden, and the last of its kind -- rolls on, with two more second-round games Wednesday night, and seven more games over the next three days.
But the goodbyes have already begun.
Last call is the championship game, Saturday night -- a game Syracuse has played in 14 times. "I remember every one of them like yesterday," Boeheim said.
The Orange have won five of them, and lost nine. But the legendary coach cherishes every single one of them.
“The heartbreaks are what make the good ones so great. You have to have them both,” Boeheim said. “I can’t really describe it accurately. It’s just -- it's my whole life.”
The league has become either strangely unpredictable or woefully unstable, depending on your point of view. What looked like established, solid, top-of-the-conference teams instead went out and lost games they frankly shouldn’t have.
The two constants: Louisville and Syracuse. And they play each other this weekend.
1. Louisville. It’s time for the first Big East showdown of the year -- before the participants become ACC members, that is. The Cards host Syracuse on Saturday, having rolled through their first league games with relative ease.
2. Syracuse. Time to see just how much the loss of James Southerland hurts the Orange. Syracuse got past Villanova without its most accurate outside threat, but it’s a tougher road this week, first at Louisville and then home against Cincinnati.
3. Marquette. The Golden Eagles’ margin of error is miniscule, but they keep coming out on the right side of the edge. That’s more than a lot of their conference brethren can say. Davante Gardner has been very solid for Marquette and should be key this week against Cincinnati.
4. Cincinnati. The Bearcats righted the ship the easy way, beating up on Rutgers and DePaul. Whether or not Cincinnati is truly back on track, however, remains to be seen in the coming week, when it faces Marquette and Syracuse. The good news: UC should have Cashmere Wright, who sprained his knee against DePaul.
5. Georgetown. The Hoyas could be the all-enigma team of the season. Unable to score one night, solid the next. The big question: What will Georgetown be without Greg Whittington, suspended from the team for academics? There’s a good team here if it just develops consistency.
6. Connecticut. There might have been a silver lining in the Huskies’ loss to Louisville: Omar Calhoun finally returned. After three pedestrian games, the freshman had 20 points and four boards. UConn needs that from him to take the pressure off of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.
7. Notre Dame. Feel free to argue that the Fighting Irish are slotted too low. Then go ahead and explain why a good, veteran team lost to Connecticut at home and then at St. John’s. Notre Dame simply has not played well in the past week.
8. Pittsburgh. Perhaps stubbornly, I still refuse to give up on the Panthers. Their defense is just too good. If only the offense could catch up. Pitt needs to beat Connecticut at home on Saturday to gain some more converts.
9. St. John’s. The Red Storm will rival Georgetown for unpredictability but at least they have a reason -- crazy youth. Steve Lavin has brash talent that isn’t quite sure what to do with itself all the time. But as St. John’s proved against Notre Dame, it will be a threat all season.
10. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are making progress, albeit in baby steps. Eli Carter's shooting struggles doomed them in a could-have-won game against Cincinnati, but Rutgers at least took care of business against South Florida. Tricky week with Notre Dame and St. John’s on the menu.
11. Villanova. The Wildcats lost twice this week but, if it’s possible, looked slightly better doing it. They put up a fight against Syracuse and matched Pitt’s defensive intensity, good signs for a program that needs some positives. Beating Providence on Saturday would help. Facing Louisville on Tuesday won’t.
12. Seton Hall. It’s almost unfair to judge the Pirates this week. Decimated by injuries, Kevin Willard had all of three subs to choose from in the loss to Marquette.
13. DePaul. It’s the same worn-out tune for the Blue Demons, who are limping through their Big East slate. DePaul has lost four of its past five, dating back to its final nonconference game against Loyola-Chicago.
14. Providence. Bryce Cotton has been terrific since returning from injury, averaging 20.8 points in the past five games. That’s the good news. The bad: The Friars are just woefully inconsistent.
15. South Florida. If the Bulls were playing golf, they’d be fantastic, what with their penchant for low scores. Sadly, this is basketball, and hovering in the 50-point range, as USF has done since league play began, isn’t going to win you a lot of games.
That's what it did last season for Kentucky. That's what it's doing this season for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes are set to play in a "title" game, regardless of what occurs Saturday at the Mohegan Sun. And for OSU, having some sort of certainty probably helps, considering that its Nov. 9 opener -- against Marquette aboard the the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C. -- was canceled.
The basics: Nov. 17-18 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
The set matchups (Nov. 17): Norfolk State vs. Loyola (Md.), noon ET; UMKC vs. Albany 2:30 p.m. ET; Ohio State vs. Rhode Island, 5 p.m. ET; Seton Hall vs. Washington, 7:30 p.m.
The favorite: Well, the tournament is set up for Ohio State, so it's hard to pick any other team. The Bucks come into the event as the only ranked squad, much like last year's event with Kentucky. OSU hasn't had a true barometer contest yet due to the cancellation of the Marquette game. The best scenario would be for the Buckeyes to get pushed a bit here in advance of having to go to Duke on Nov. 28 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mike Black, Albany: The senior guard is off to an America East player-of-the-year-type season. Black scored a combined 42 points over his past two games after 15 in the season opener. His ability to score in a variety of ways should prove useful once he gets into conference play. So far, he's not having any problems scoring against perceived tougher competition.
Aaron Craft, Ohio State: The Buckeyes point guard is one of the top lead guards in the country. He has to set the tone early and often for Ohio State. He has been known as a defender and top facilitator, but might have to do more scoring with the current makeup of the OSU roster. Craft scored 20 points Sunday in a 22-point win over Albany.
Abdul Gaddy, Washington: Gaddy is off to a solid start for the Huskies after a few seasons of erratic and injured play. He has the ability to dominate the ball and give Craft plenty to handle if the two meet Sunday. Gaddy didn't bolt when everything didn't go his way. Now he has to maximize his opportunity and excel.
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: Thomas is the new face of this team. He played well off Jared Sullinger last season, but now he has to be the featured forward. Thomas scored 19 in the opening win over Albany. He is a consensus preseason All-American and he will need to live up to that hype if Ohio State has a real shot to compete for the Big Ten title.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
How will Ohio State handle being expected to win?
The Buckeyes have gone through the past few seasons in a favored role in the Big Ten. This season they can actually play with more freedom not being the fave. But in this event, anything less than two wins at the Mohegan Sun will be deemed a disappointment. The Bucks need to show that they have balance and can defend over the next two days.
Which Albany team will show?
The Great Danes are 2-1, with wins over Washington on the road and against Duquesne, so they appear to be a legit contender in the conference. Beat MAAC contender Loyola (Md.) and Albany will get even more credibility among its peers.
Will Washington turn its season around?
The Huskies lost two players to the NBA draft after winning the Pac-12 regular-season title. But the season was still expected to be promising and still can be if the Huskies can stop the bleeding from this week's stunning home loss to Albany. A year ago, Washington came east and lost at Madison Square Garden to Marquette and Duke. This is the first of two trips to Connecticut for the Huskies (they play at UConn on Dec. 29). Leaving with at least one win is a must. Two would add momentum for the rest of the nonconference slate.
How much of a contender or pretender is Seton Hall?
The Pirates are a bit of an unknown in the Big East. This event has a chance to unveil the mystery. Seton Hall should be taken seriously because of its ability to score. If the Pirates can get to a meeting with Ohio State and pull the upset, then a possible top-half finish in the Big East isn't out of the question.
What are the chances Danny Hurley can get his first win at Rhode Island?
The Rams lost by 12 at home to Norfolk State and got drilled at Virginia Tech by 19 points. URI is going through a complete overhaul and won't truly be back until a high-level recruiting class comes to Kingston next season. But this team can't get too discouraged here early in the season. A split of the games this weekend will at least give the Rams some confidence moving forward.
Saturday: Loyola (Md.) over Norfolk State; Albany over UMKC; Ohio State over Rhode Island; Washington over Seton Hall.
Sunday: Norfolk State over UMKC; Albany over Loyola (Md.); Seton Hall over Rhode Island; Ohio State over Washington.
2. Big East coordinator of officials Art Hyland better not assign Gene Steratore to a Seton Hall game the rest of the season. Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard didn’t hesitate about his distaste for the official. Willard was handed two technical fouls by Steratore and ejected during Saturday’s loss to Connecticut. In the post-game, Willard didn’t name Steratore, but multiple Seton Hall sources said Willard has had issues with the official this season. “There’s one of them I don’t get along with," Willard said. "I don’t mind getting blown out but I do have an issue when the refs enjoy a blowout. I don’t think they should be smiling or enjoying one team getting their butt kicked and another team not. That’s what I saw."
3. Karl Hobbs, the former George Washington coach and current UConn assistant, agreed with my potential comparison of Murray State to his 2006 GW team. Hobbs’ team was 26-2, 16-0 in the A-10 heading into the NCAAs and was placed in the 8-9 game. The only regular season loss was at NC State. GW lost in the A-10 tournament to Temple. “A lot of people thought we should have gotten a higher seed, but I think that’s a good comparison," said Hobbs of the criticism of the non-conference strength of schedule. "But like (Murray), everyone was waiting for us to lose a game,’’ said Hobbs. Murray’s non-conference strength of schedule could be an issue, and that’s why the Saint Mary’s game on Feb. 18 will be a good barometer.
Kevin Willard’s job wasn’t the easiest or the toughest but renovating Seton Hall certainly wasn’t for the faint of heart. The Pirates hadn’t been good in a while — their last NCAA tournament berth came in 2006 — and instead had fallen into that horrific abyss of irrelevance.
In his second season, the coach already is reaping some rewards. Seton Hall ranks among the biggest surprises in the Big East. The Pirates, who have won 11 of their last 12, already have won more games this season (14) than they did all of last season, and with eye-popping wins against Connecticut and West Virginia, are a serious threat in the conference.
This week, Seton Hall debuted in the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 24, ranked for the first time in 11 years as it prepares for tonight's game against DePaul.
While Willard was prepping for the Blue Demons, he took a few minutes to visit the Coach's Corner.
O'Neil: What’s different between your team this year and last?
Willard: Maturity. Even though we’re still a young team, we have two great seniors (Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore) who have been great for us. You need big-time players who can lead a team and play with an edge and we have that now.
O'Neil: Since Seton Hall lost to Syracuse (75-49), your team has won its last three in convincing fashion. Were you worried that they’d bounce back?
Willard: Not at all. We were embarrassed in that game. We had been playing well and then we go up there and just get embarrassed. In a way maybe it was good for us. It allowed us to refocus on what was important to us. Right after it, we had good practices and good film sessions, especially good film sessions. We watched that tape and saw all of the mistakes we made and the guys came out of there ready. I could tell we’d be alright.
O'Neil: What’s it like to watch Herb Pope, who has had his share of problems, have such a big senior season (17.9 ppg, 10.7 rpg)?
Willard: I’ve been through so much with Herb over the last two years, I’m just glad people are getting to know what he’s really like. He’s a great kid and he’s been through so much and he deserves a year like this. I couldn’t be happier for him. This summer I could see that he was really focused. He came back in great shape.
O'Neil: What’s going on in the Big East?
Willard: I think the league is extremely good but it’s extremely young. A lot of coaches lost a lot of very good players and even though they have good players back, they have young players. Look at Villanova, West Virginia, Rutgers, even Connecticut. I think that’s why you’re seeing so many of these good wins followed by bad losses. This is a very difficult league this year.
O'Neil: The million-dollar question. Does your team deserve to be ranked? (The Hall is No. 24 in AP, but still just 28th in the most recent ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.)
Willard: Honestly, I don’t care. I do know that we have the No. 2 RPI and we’ve played the fifth-best schedule in the country. But rankings don’t mean anything to me. It’s great for the fans. It gives them something to be excited about. It allows them to better understand what we’re trying to build here and to see the results a little more clearly. So it means something for them, but not to me.
The streets had already swallowed another son. But Jordan Theodore’s mother refused to let her youngest misstep and fall into its cracks, too.
So the single parent sent the Seton Hall senior from Englewood, N.J., to Paterson Catholic high school in Paterson, N.J., where he blossomed during the final two years of his prep career. The move, Theodore said, boosted his basketball prospects.
“I had to discipline myself to stay away from the negative stuff. And at times, I got caught up in some of the negative stuff. Getting in trouble in school and just wildin’ out with my friends,” Theodore told ESPN.com. “But my mother changed my life when she sent me to Paterson Catholic, just to get away from all my friends in Englewood and just to go to Catholic school and just to learn to be disciplined, to stay humble and just to work hard from the classroom and on the court.”
Taking an opportunity and rolling with it. That’s still the theme of Theodore’s life.
He left Paterson Catholic as a Top-100 recruit and all-state selection with scholarship offers from Pitt, Rutgers, Illinois and Seton Hall.
He’s gradually overcome a variety of challenges with the Pirates. Former coach Bobby Gonzalez, who recruited Theodore, was fired following the 2009-10 season. And last year, new Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard dismissed veterans Keon Lawrence and Jamel Jackson.
Meanwhile, Theodore struggled to lead the Pirates as the starting point guard in a new system.
“It was tough last year, trying to learn Coach Willard’s system and just being the first year and trying to lead and do it all at the same time. It was tough because I would call out a play and Coach would change it,” Theodore said. “I didn’t know what he wanted. I knew what Coach Gonzalez wanted.”
After acquiescing to Willard’s expectations, however, Theodore has become one of Big East’s and the nation’s top pure point guards. And Seton Hall has an 8-1 record just weeks away from conference play.
Theodore’s surge was necessary for a team that lost former star Jeremy Hazell, whose 2,148 points rank third on the school’s all-time charts.
His averages of 14.8 points and 7.2 assists per game (No. 6 in the country) are beyond noble, especially considering last season’s averages of 11.0 points and 4.4 assists per contest. But his newfound grasp of his leadership role is equally impressive.
Theodore said a series of “heart to heart” conversations with Willard in the offseason strengthened their relationship.
“I think now, I’m him. On the court, me and him are the same because I know what he’s thinking, he knows what I’m thinking,” Theodore said. “And I know exactly what he wants me to do when I’m on the court.”
Theodore credits the team’s coaches, young players and fellow veteran Herb Pope for Seton Hall’s early success. The tumultuous past dismissed players, coaching changes and a 13-18 (7-11 Big East) finish last season seems distant given the way the Pirates have started.
There is, however, one blemish that’s still difficult for Theodore to overcome. In March, he was accused of confronting Lawrence in a dorm room while brandishing a handgun. But the Essex County prosecutor’s office decided against pressing charges due to insufficient evidence. Seton Hall also cleared Theodore after a separate investigation.
Still, Theodore believes the situation briefly stained his career.
“Just for that to even come out, it was bad for me,” he said. “To this day, if you type my name on Google, the first thing that pops up is Jordan Theodore being accused of assault with a deadly weapon. I don’t want that up there, but I can’t change it.”
Theodore misspoke. It’s actually the second item that appears during a Google search of his name.
The first is Theodore’s stat sheet on ESPN.com. The one that showcases the talent and promise birthed from his mother’s determination.
Over a period of time, the phrase "Gonzo being Gonzo" has crept into the college hoops fan's lexicon. At this point, nothing Gonzalez does seems all that surprising. Everything is on the table.
Naturally, the latest dispatch from Gonzo-land is no different. In an interview with ESPN New York's Ian Begley, Gonzalez said his former team -- which finished 13-18 overall, 7-11 in the Big East, and lost in the first round of the Big East tournament -- would have been back in the NCAAs this season had Gonzalez still be at the school. Oh, yeah. He went there:
"If I was back this year we would have won over 20 games and we would've went back to the NCAA [tournament]," Gonzalez said in an interview Tuesday afternoon with ESPNNewYork.com. "To have a record like that with the talent that I left them is unacceptable."
Before we get to the rest of the choice Gonzo quotes in Begley's interview -- and there are a few -- let's address this claim quickly. After all, Gonzalez may be right. Maybe Seton Hall would have won 20 games and gotten into the NCAA tournament this season. But it's pretty doubtful.
For one, Gonzalez never won 20 games in his tenure at the Hall; the 19 wins he achieved in 2009-10 were the most of his tenure with the Pirates. Two, Gonzalez never went to the NCAA tournament with the Pirates. Three, in this hypothetical scenario, Gonzalez would have faced the same personnel challenges as first-year coach Kevin Willard. Those challenges include a scary offseason collapse for forward Herb Pope. They also include the travails of leading scorer Jeremy Hazell, who broke his wrist in late November and was shot -- yes, shot -- on Christmas Day. Yes, Seton Hall had talent this year, and yes, Gonzalez was responsible for assembling that talent. But the reasons for the Pirates' decline can't be entirely pinned on Willard. There are some things you just can't control.
Besides, if Pope's comments after his recovery from that collapse are any indication -- Gonzalez didn't visit Pope in the hospital; Pope said that "didn't surprise me because you expected that out of a man like him" -- the Pirates weren't exactly fond of their former coach in the first place.
Anyway, the rest of Gonzo's quotes are just as good. A sampling:
- "I think that I was too focused on winning games, making it, getting to the top. I was just too much of a maniac, I was too driven," Gonzalez said. "I think that the good thing that this year did was [it] made me put it in perspective and take a step back and realize it's not life and death."
- "I probably shouldn't have picked as many fights, I probably was too aggressive. ... And that made everybody a little uncomfortable," he added. "I should have been a little more politically correct, a little more diplomatic. But at the same time, who I am and part of what got me to [coaching Division I basketball] was my personality."
- Gonzalez felt that Seton Hall was making him the "fall guy" for the [Robert] Mitchell [incident, in which Mitchell was accused of robbing eight people at gunpoint with former player Kelly Whitney] by firing him. "I'm not saying I'm perfect, I made my share of mistakes [but] they were trying to destroy me and hurt my career. Not just fire me, but crucify me," he said.
- "Right now the perception and the reputation of Bobby Gonzalez is, 'That guy's crazy, he's too wild, he doesn't get along with anybody, he's too hard to work for, he's a maniac, he brings in all these bad kids,'" Gonzalez said. "But you know what else? I'm a winner."
Death, taxes, Butler and Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament and Bobby Gonzalez saying slightly crazy things to New York-area media: It's good to know there are always a few things in life you can count on.
Former Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez had a crazy time, too, getting fired by the school, being charged with shoplifting and settling a wrongful termination suit.
Somewhere in there, Gonzalez needed to find time to visit Pope in the hospital as one of his players fought for his life. According to The Star-Ledger, that didn't happen. Even worse, it didn't surprise Pope.
Pope didn't want to talk much about Gonzalez, but the little he did, he sounded like a guy who had gotten out of a dysfunctional relationship and was appreciating a saner life.
He was in the hospital for nearly a month but had no contact with his former coach during that time -- or, maybe more telling, since then. Gonzalez told The Star-Ledger in an interview this spring that he had tried to reach out, but if he did, the message never got to Pope.
"No, no, no. I haven't talked to him. Not once," Pope said. "He was the only one who didn't show up (at the hospital). It kind of shows you his character. It didn't surprise me because you expected that out of a man like him."
Wow. Pope, who led the Big East in rebounding for Gonzalez, should have had his old coach there.
And now, Pope is playing for new coach Kevin Willard, someone who hadn't gotten the chance to really get to know him until the collapse.
From Dana O'Neil's story last month:
It had been all of 30 days since Willard was hired at Seton Hall, taking over after Bobby Gonzalez was fired. And now he stood next to the hospital bed of one of his best players, a player who up until that moment had been toying with going pro.
"You see someone with such a bright future … I cried a lot,'' Willard said. "This kid had his whole life in front of him.''
That means more visibility for the students on television and also quite probably more heckling of the visitors, associate athletic director Jamison Hannigan conceded to the school newspaper.
When asked if he wants students to heckle visiting teams, as long as it is "clean" Hannigan said, "Absolutely, it's a part of gamesmanship."
Students at Seton Hall are already anticipating the possibility of being able to easier heckle opposing players. This week, a group appeared on Facebook entitled "Hall's Hecklers."
The group's aim, as stated on the Facebook page, is to "finally give our Seton Hall Pirates the home-court advantage they deserve. With the student section being expanded behind the visiting team's bench this year, it is essential that we distract them during the game."
So after the school fired Bobby Gonzalez and replaced him with an anti-Bobby Gonzalez in Kevin Willard, it appears it's the students who are about to create a more hostile environment for Big East teams.
Matt from New Jersey writes: Where is Seton Hall? It returns the best scorer in the conference, the best rebounder in the conference, two great perimeter guards that can defend, an Ole Miss transfer (6-foot-6 forward Eniel Polynice) and has Jeff Robinson for a whole season. The best part is that they finally have a sane, calm coach with a good demeanor who will preach the two most important elements: defense and rebounding.
Eamonn Brennan: Matt, I assume you're asking about Seton Hall's lack of presence in various preseason discussions of the Big East, and not actually trying to find Seton Hall geographically. But just in case, here you go.
Also, I hope you are not insinuating that former Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez was insane. What would make you think that?
Google Maps-related jokes aside, your question, vague though it may be, is valid. But there are a few reasons why Seton Hall probably isn't on most preseason prognosticators' minds, and I think they're valid too. The first is uncertainty. Kevin Willard takes over as a first-year coach in the Big East, and that's not an easy job for anyone, even a guy like Willard, who is familiar with the territory. Forward Herb Pope is key to Seton Hall's chances, and no one was really sure whether or not he was going to be able to play in 2010-11 -- or, for that matter, ever again. (Pope collapsed during a workout last spring but appears to be able to play this season.) The third is talent: Even with Pope, leading scorer Jeremy Hazell, and forward Jeff Robinson for much of last season, Gonzalez's team struggled to get to 9-9 in the Big East. Returning talent is nice, and adding Polynice gives the Pirates some depth, but is this team really that much better than last year's? And if not, do they really deserve the preseason love?
Don't get me wrong: Seton Hall could definitely surprise some people this season. Willard is inheriting a solid nucleus. If Pope is productive, an NCAA tournament bid is well within reach. But you can't blame preseason scribes from warily avoiding Seton Hall until the Pirates prove a few things on the court. That's only fair.
Tom D. from Austin, Tex., writes: I saw that Duke hung 141 points on last year's CIAA champs in an exhibition game with no player getting more than 22 minutes. Does this mean anything at all?
Brennan: Let's see: The reigning NCAA national champs and 2010-11 preseason No. 1 beat a CIAA team (St. Augustine's) that lost six players? And they did so by a considerable margin?
Uh, yeah. This means nothing at all. It might actually mean less than nothing. If there was an "absolute nothing," this would be it. (Like absolute zero? See what I did there? Har? OK, moving on...)
Stephen from Evansville, Ind., writes: Everyone always seems to get caught up on how many teams a conference gets into the NCAA tournament as a measure for the quality of the conference. What should the Missouri Valley expect as far as NCAA tournament teams and success year-in and year-out?
Brennan: In terms of resources and conference affiliation, it's a little unrealistic to expect the Missouri Valley to recreate its brilliant 2006 run, when the MVC got four NCAA tournament bids and saw two teams streak to Sweet 16 appearances. Like many other mid-majors, it's hard for teams in the MVC to put together strong overall résumés, because it's so hard to convince the big boys to play them. It ain't fair, but that's just life in the sub-high-major world.
I think the Valley would be pretty excited if it could consistently place three teams in the NCAA tournament every year. That means at least two or three programs are building the sort of long-term success that doesn't require a one-year flash in the MVC tourney to get in to the Big Dance. That could be the case this year, as both Wichita State and Creighton (and maybe even Northern Iowa) look like potential NCAA tournament teams. But it's a lot to expect from a conference like the Missouri Valley on a year-to-year basis.
Tim Watts from Philadelphia, writes: Will Ohio State still be a contending team without superstar Evan Turner? And do they have a chance of winning the Big Ten over Michigan State?
Brennan: Yes and yes. Turner was a special player, but Ohio State has a coterie of experienced guards who can share Turner's ballhandling and scoring roles (William Buford, David Lighty, Jon Diebler), and could end up being much deeper and more balanced than last season's team. That's because forward Jared Sullinger could be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate in the post, and OSU's other highly touted recruits should be able to contribute right away. Sullinger remains unproven, so you have to give Michigan State the nod, but if he pans out, the Buckeyes might be even better than last season. Hard to imagine after the year Turner had, but imagine it anyway.
(As an aside, I hope I'm not the only college hoops fan who is thoroughly disappointed with how Turner's NBA career -- thus far marred by supposed attitude problems and lack of productivity -- has begun. Philly coach Doug Collins even benched Turner for Wednesday night's season opener, instead opting for ... Jason Kapono. What a bummer.)
Tony Waffen from Wasilla, Alaska, writes: What is your evaluation of the Saint Mary's Gaels this year? And what happened to Omar Samhan?
Brennan: Greetings from Wasilla? I promise not to make any Sarah Palin jokes. I think I can hold off.
I also think St. Mary's is clearly a notch or two below Gonzaga this season, if only because coach Randy Bennett doesn't have a clear replacement for the inside-out forward combo of Samhan and Ben Allen. But Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova are as good a guard combo as the WCC will have -- McConnell shot 51 percent from 3 last season, which is just silly -- and with a few contributions from guys like Clint Steindl and Jorden Page, I think Saint Mary's is still a factor at the top of their conference.
As for Omar? After an encouraging stint with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA summer league, Samhan signed a contract with Zalgiris Kaunus, a club in Lithuania. There's a decent chance Samhan gets a few more NBA looks -- he definitely made an impression on a handful of GMs this summer -- but for now, he's getting paid to play hoops in Eastern Europe. There are worse fates. (And let's hope Omar has been brushing up on his Lithuanian, so he can be the funniest basketball player on two continents, and not just one.)
Derek Rainbolt from Bloomington, Ind., writes: With Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia leading the way for the SEC, why does it seem the league is not getting national buzz?
Brennan: And let's not forget Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, both of whom are likely NCAA tournament teams. This is a good conference.
That said, I'm not sure I agree with your premise. "National buzz" is sort of hard to gauge in the first place, but from where I'm sitting (and I might not be the best judge, since I basically spend every day holed away in front of my computer reading and writing about college basketball), I'm not sure the SEC has received any less of this mythical buzz than conferences like the ACC or the Big East, both of which have their strong teams, but both of which are less deep than we're used to. In any case, if the SEC isn't getting the requisite amount of love, that will change as soon as its top five or six teams start proving themselves this winter. Until then, I wouldn't worry about it too much.
Eric from Bethlehem, Pa., writes: Would you consider C.J. McCollum of Lehigh one of the top players in the mid-major ranks? He dominated the Patriot League and played well against Kansas in the NCAA tournament last season.
Brennan: Why yes, yes I would. McCollum won player of the year and rookie of the year awards as a freshman at Lehigh last season. That's big-time stuff no matter the conference, and his performance in the first round of the NCAA tournament -- 26 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block -- was very impressive. Maybe the most exciting thing about McCollum (assuming he doesn't decide to transfer at some point, in which case, sorry, Lehigh fans) is that he was only a freshman. He's already one of the better mid-major players in the country, and his ceiling remains very high.
Armand from Springfield, Mo., writes: How much more does Mike Anderson need to do to get some respect? Look at the last two seasons: Big 12 champs in 2008 with an Elite Eight finish. Second round in 2009, with inferior talent compared to K-State, Kansas, Texas and Baylor. Despite a proven system, every fall experts predict Missouri to finish behind all these teams. Well, now we have the best junior college transfer in the country as well as a five-star recruit in Tony Mitchell (eligible in the spring sem., right when conference play begins). Mizzou will be a force to be reckoned with and Big 12 coaches realize this, but the media never seems to. #TheFastest40Minutes
Brennan: First of all, hashtag in a mailbag question gets an immediate thumbs up. You should shorten that and use it to live-tweet Missouri games. After all, like Forrest Gump said, you never know what you're going to trend.
Second, Mizzou fans are awesome. I'm not being sarcastic. Every week the mailbag has at least two or three Missouri-related questions or comments. Columbia is excited about their program.
Then again, why shouldn't they be? I have a couple of soft spots when it comes to Missouri basketball. I love uptempo play, I love a properly run full-court press, and I love a coach who is willing to buck the conventional X's-and-O's wisdom to run a chaotic, onions-to-the-wall style because he believes in it. Mike Anderson has done all three at Missouri, and there's no question it's paid off.
Last Thursday at Big 12 media day, Anderson made a comment to a reporter about his team's propensity to be ranked in the lower half of the league before the season, only to finish among the conference's leaders. I asked him if he thought his system explained the gap. He downplayed it, telling me he thought his players didn't get enough credit, that he had had some underrated talent in his tenure, and that his staff worked hard to develop his guys as the season went along.
It was a nice answer, but it's barely half-right; his system deserves a lot of the credit. Missouri puts opponents on their heels for a full 40 minutes. They shoot from anywhere on the court, they force you to rebound on every possession, they make you move the ball 80 feet to get into your offense, and they don't let up once you do. It's brilliant to watch, and I think it's better proof that undermatched teams can change the conditions of the game than anything Malcolm Gladwell cited last year.
The scary part is what happens when Missouri has the same kind of talent as Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas. Assuming Mitchell is able to get eligible for the spring semester, the Tigers will be a fearsome bunch. And, as always, incredibly fun to watch.
Now there's even more good news: Eniel Polynice, the 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward from Ole Miss, has decided to transfer to Seton Hall. Even better, Polynice graduated as a Rebel without using his final year of college eligibility, and can play immediately under an NCAA rule that allows transfers to skip the customary transfer year if they intend to pursue a graduate degree in a field not offered by their own school. Ole Miss doesn't have a communications program; Seton Hall does. And so Polynice qualifies.
The word is still out on Pope -- his collapse in the Seton Hall gym earlier this summer could be enough to keep him out of basketball indefinitely -- but even if Pope doesn't return, Willard and company have to be, like, totally stoked. Most coaching transitions, at least those that originate out of a Gonzo-esque institutional meltdown, tend to leave the cupboard bare. But it's entirely possible Willard's team will be even more talented in his first year than Gonzalez's was in his last.