(Photo Credit: Andrew Mills/ NJ Advance Media)
BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
Who would’ve thought this just several years ago? Who would’ve ever said this?
Seton Hall basketball coach Kevin Willard broke P.J. Carlesimo‘s record for wins as Seton Hall head coach on Sunday night after the No. 23 Seton Hall Pirates took a 77-63 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Prudential Center. It’s good enough for second place in program history with 213 wins. Honey Russell leads Seton Hall’s men basketball program for most wins at 295.
It’s a good bet Willard could be around to break Russell’s record for most wins ever as Seton Hall head coach one day. I would’ve never thought I would utter those words. Seton Hall fans never would’ve entertained that thought ever.
We all figured Willard would just be another Seton Hall head coach that flopped since Carlesimo left for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers in the summer of 1994. Instead, he has a chance to be a Seton Hall lifer when all is said and done.
After his first five seasons as a middling coach at Seton Hall, he got his recruits starting with Isiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Ismael Sanogo and Angel Delgado, and the program took off under him by making the tournament four straight years (should have been five if COVID-19 did not stand in the way) until last season. Now, recruits are coming in to continue the legacy of his first recruiting class, and Seton Hall has become a tournament-bound program on a yearly basis under Willard. This explains why he made his own history Thursday night in tying Carlesimo’s record after a 64-60 victory over No. 7 Texas at Prudential Center and breaking the record Sunday night. This explains why he is still around.
No one can deny his success. Not even his critics. He certainly won some of them over, including me. Winning changes everything.
Replacing Carlesimo has not been easy. It became a burden for coaches such as George Blaney, Tommy Amaker, Louis Orr and Bobby Gonzalez. Out of the coaches prior to Williard coming to South Orange, Orr had some success, but Seton Hall boosters wanted more such as recruiting guys in the city and in the state of New Jersey and many tournament appearances.
Here’s where Willard stands out: He kept Seton Hall competitive for a long time now. Recruits have been coming on a yearly basis. He found a way to have the university puts its resources on men’s basketball. This is hard to do at Seton Hall.
Yes, he has an advantage over his predecessors in a sense the Big East is not what it used to be. No matter. He still has to get these guys in. Seton Hall is a hard place to get local recruits to play period. He made inroads with the coaches in the city and in New Jersey to make this possible. He built trust and good relationships to make all this work.
With success comes expectations for WIllard. Fans, boosters and administrators want more. Greed is good as Gordon Gecko would say.
The quest for Willard is to get Seton Hall to play in Sweet 16s yearly. He has yet to do that. He only had one NCAA Tournament win in his successful tenure. If not for COVID-19 that canceled March Madness two years ago, he would have likely gotten there with Myles Powell leading the way.
He certainly has a chance to get there this season. He has Seton Hall playing well at 9-1 with wins against top teams such as Michigan (on the road) and Texas to show for it. On Sunday night, he had the Hall ready to go and dominate Rutgers. It was fitting he broke Carlesimo’s record in the Garden State Hardwood Classic that alums, boosters and students make a big deal of from both campuses.
Here’s why Seton Hall can go past the first weekend of the tournament: This is a team that boasts six or seven guys that can score. On Sunday night, the Pirates boasted five players that scored in double figures. This is not just a one-man team in years past. Kadary Richmond (10 points), Alexis Yetna (10 points) and Tyrese Samuel (seven points) can help Jared Rhoden (16 points). Bryce Aiken provides scoring off the bench, and he showed that by scoring 22 points against Rutgers that was good enough for him to win the Joe Calabrese MVP, best player of the Garden State Hardwood Classic.
Seton Hall can not only beat guys from downtown, but it can break down defense and score in the paint as Samuel and Richmond did against a stingy Rutgers team that prides itself on defense. Plus, Seton Hall can defend well.
No one knew what to make of Seton Hall when the season started, especially with Sandro Mamukelashvili graduating from the university. Willard and the players expected the team to be good, and so far, they played like it.
Seton Hall can do more than just make the tournament such as winning the Big East, sweeping Villanova and participating in the Final Four this season. So many possibilities are there for this program.
WIllard’s longevity that goes with his success could make him a lifer at Seton Hall. Yes, he is rumored to be a candidate to coach at Maryland. He will be a candidate to go elsewhere.
But with a new practice facility in the way and the Hall building itself as a powerhouse, it’s hard to believe Willard is leaving the program for better things. He created this program, and now he wants to take this program to the next level, which he has a chance to do that here. He can win a national championship eventually at Seton Hall.
Maybe in a few years, he will beat Russell’s record and set the program record for most wins. He would like to do that, which gives another reason for him to stay.
This time around, no one will be surprised.
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