Willard reacts to Seton Hall's NCAA snub

March, 11, 2012
3/11/12
11:04
PM ET
Seton Hall -- which ESPN "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi had picked to be the last team to make it into the NCAA tournament field of 68 -- was one of this year's bubble teams that had its hopes popped on Sunday evening.

The Pirates, despite finishing the regular season with a record of 20-12 (8-10 Big East), are headed to the NIT. They are the sixth 20-win Big East team of the last 153 to not make the Big Dance.

"Well, obviously we are disappointed," said coach Kevin Willard on a conference call with reporters Sunday evening. "But still excited, very excited about being in the NIT, and having a chance to still play basketball."

The Pirates will host Stony Brook (22-9), the America East regular season champion, on Tuesday at Walsh Gymnasium, on Seton Hall's campus. Tip-off is at 7:15 p.m.

Seton Hall was chasing its first NCAA bid since 2006. Willard is only in his second season with the program, and the roster is comprised largely of freshmen and sophomores, so they will have more opportunities to accomplish this goal in the years ahead.

But for Seton Hall's two senior leaders, point guard Jordan Theodore and power forward Herb Pope, this was their last chance.

"My two seniors took it hard. Really hard," said Willard. "It was tough to console them, because it was a really emotional time for both of them. They both gave so much this year to us, and both have come through so much at this university."

Seton Hall had a roller coaster of a season. The Pirates started out 15-2, earning their first national ranking since 2001. Then they went into a tailspin from mid-January to early February, losing six straight games.

They rebounded to win four of five after that, including an 18-point victory over then-No. 8 Georgetown on Feb. 21 that everyone believed put them on the cusp of that coveted NCAA bid. But then they ended the regular season with an overtime loss to Rutgers, followed by an inexplicable 28-point loss at last-place DePaul.

Seton Hall dispatched Providence in the first-round of the Big East tournament, but lost to Louisville in the second round.

"Unfortunately I think [the selection committee] looked at the last two games of the [regular] season ... when in fact, that really wasn't who we were all year," said Willard. "But at the same time, all the teams that got in were great teams."

Willard also said that he will change his approach to scheduling going forward. Seton Hall went 11-1 during its nonconference slate this season, including a win at Dayton, and wins against VCU and St. Joseph's at a neutral site. The Pirates' only nonconference blemish was a loss to Northwestern, again at a neutral site.

"I thought we put together a really good nonconference sked to help us out [with the selection committee]," said Willard. "It obviously doesn't matter who you play in the nonconference, it just matters how you do in your conference.

"Playing road games and playing tough neutural-court games doesn't help you in your conference, I've learned that very quickly," Willard added, saying that his new plan for nonconference scheduling is to "not leave the state, play all home games, and get ready for the Big East."

Ironically, Iona -- the team Willard coached for three years before taking the Seton Hall job -- was one of the bubble teams that made the NCAA tournament field on Sunday. "I'm ecstatic," said Willard. "Where that program was four years ago or five years ago, to get an at-large bid? Couldn't be happier."

As for Seton Hall, the Pirates did receive one of the No. 1 seeds in the NIT.

"I'm very proud of what we've accomplished this season," said Willard, "and we're looking forward to getting back on the court on Tuesday.”
Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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