The basketball clock, not just the biological clock, was ticking for Kevin Willard at Seton Hall.
Hired in 2010 to take over a program in disarray, Willard was not expected to author a quick fix in South Orange, New Jersey. He received patience from his administration, and rightly so.
Six seasons, however, represent more time at a Big East school than many coaches have a right to expect. If Willard hadn’t gotten it right in 2016 with his team, the grumbles of dissatisfaction would have grown a lot louder. A 40-year-old coach would have needed to buy a fresh supply of earplugs, to drown out the offseason noise which was going to come his way.
Now, Willard doesn’t have to go to the corner drugstore. No earplugs will be needed.
Patience is a central yet un-American virtue, but it’s precisely the source of Willard’s breakthrough as a coach. After Sunday’s 90-81 win over Xavier — a regular resident of the top 10 for much of the season — Seton Hall will indeed make the NCAA tournament. The Pirates were on the good side of the bubble entering Sunday’s game. Beating a team in the hunt for a No. 1 seed will move the Hall up a couple of seed lines, to the point that no remaining loss would be able to drop the Pirates all the way out of the field.
Willard, unable to find answers in his first five seasons on the job, no longer has to wonder “if” his time will come. He’ll coach a team in the Big Dance and get his chance to move Seton Hall back to the center of the national conversation.
Getting to the NCAA tournament was hardly a given for Seton Hall this season.
Just a week before the Xavier win, Seton Hall trailed lowly St. John’s in the final 10 seconds, but the Red Storm committed a foul, enabling the wobbly Pirates to win the game at the free throw line. Had Seton Hall lost that game, it not only would have fallen to the bad side of the NCAA tournament bubble; the team’s belief in itself could have been shaken in late February, a scenario which had emerged in many of Willard’s previous journeys.
Seton Hall started the 2014-2015 season with a 12-2 mark, entering February at 15-6, 5-4 in the Big East. Then the Pirates lost their first six games in February. Their season had turned to rubble.
The Pirates’ tumble in 2015 was accompanied by discord in the locker room. Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs — talented players Willard had hoped would be central to the program’s revival — both transferred, forcing Willard to develop the talent he had on hand. Yes, the departure of players who aren’t happy — sometimes as the main creators of friction, other times as receivers of it — can improve the way the whole team functions. Nevertheless, losing production and skill are never part of a coach’s Plan A. Willard had to turn to Plan B in his sixth season on the job. With no NCAA tournaments to speak of in his first five campaigns, Willard walked into a cauldron of pressure this season.
Then consider the following: Regardless of how hot his seat actually was, Willard faced the internal stress caused by the passage of time. Job or no job, pink slip or no pink slip, the idea of going five full seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance at a Big East school — or any school in any established upper-tier college basketball conference — has to eat away at the man in charge. The simple reality of two very oppressive words — “NOT YET” — weighs upon the members of the coaching profession, even if they continue to cash a paycheck.
Until that first NCAA tournament threshold is crossed, a D-I coach lives in the shadow not only of the questions which come from the outside world, but the shadows of the questions that come within.
Now, Kevin Willard won’t have to torture himself with those kinds of queries. Seton Hall — a school whose accomplishments as a program belong almost entirely to one coach, P.J. Carlesimo (from 1988 through 1994) — will return to the Dance for the first time since 2006. The Pirates will have a chance to win their first NCAA tournament game since 2004.
Kevin Willard aspires to achieve much more in his still-young coaching career. First things first, though: Willard will have a chance to breathe a bit this offseason. He’ll no longer be hounded by the question: “When Will Seton Hall finally return to the NCAA tournament?”
The Pirates will be part of the party a few weeks from now.