Seton Hall may be struggling now, but future is bright
FEB 16, 2014 10:42p ET
Kevin Willard, the head coach of Seton Hall University, is sitting at his desk on a recent morning when his cell phone rings. It's his dad, Ralph Willard, the longtime college coach who is now a scout for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Like always, he's calling to bust his son's balls. This time it's about not playing enough matchup zone defense in a loss the night before.
But the son waves the father off. They'll talk later. Right now, in the middle of another Big East grind that's been at once surprising -- with three good road wins against Providence, Xavier and Georgetown -- as well as frustrating with all the injuries and one-point losses, Kevin Willard is trying to look at the big picture of his four years at Seton Hall, a once-great program that hasn't made an NCAA tournament in nearly a decade.
This season? A .500 record in the Big East is still possible, which would be a massive improvement over last year's 3-15 conference record. A shot at the NCAA tournament seems the ultimate Hail Mary, only possible with a miracle romp through the Big East tournament. This is a team with talented guard play in sophomore transfer Sterling Gibbs and freshman Jaren Sina, one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball in Fuquan Edwin, and plenty of experience, but a flurry of midseason injuries forced Willard and his staff to reinvent things on the go. Once again, this wasn't how another Seton Hall season was supposed to go under the young Willard, a former Louisville assistant who is considered a brilliant coaching mind and is in his second head-coaching gig.
Let's just say it how it is: Seton Hall, which had been built into a national force under P.J. Carlesimo, is today one of the toughest coaching jobs in the new Big East. Willard came into this place four years ago having to fill a roster that had only four returnees. The progress he's made -- and yes, an outside shot at .500 in the Big East is what I'd call progress -- is obvious. Yet to an itching fan base, it's also not enough.
But despite the feeling of disappointment surrounding this season, you can't shake the legitimate, Chicago-Cubs-like "wait till next year" optimism that rightfully surrounds this team's future.
To understand the optimism, though, we must start with the disappointment.
"It's frustrating for fans; it's frustrating for everybody," Willard told me in his office. "Trying to turn the corner is probably the hardest thing I've ever gone through. But we're making progress. I think we're close to it. I still like this team. I want to kill 'em right now, but I still like this team. We can shoot the basketball extremely well. We have two really good young guards who are still learning on the job. There's a frustration level with them at times, but one's a freshman, one's a sophomore."
With that sort of talent, you might have expected this team to make more waves.
But when the majority of your starting lineup gets injured leading into conference play -- when Tom Maayan, a contributor in the backcourt, leaves the team because he got called back into the Israeli military -- things don't usually turn up rosy. It's not an excuse, just an explanation.
"You don't make progress," Willard told me of the injuries and the personnel shuffling. "All the sudden you're without two centers and without your starting small forward. You're just trying to survive. You're just trying to do whatever you can to try to get a win. You're not working on becoming a better team. You're cutting practice short because you're in survival mode and you can't get another guy hurt. That's where the frustration of where you should be and where you could be versus where you are."
But -- and this is an important but -- there are some bright spots here in South Orange. Not the Pollyana-ish bright spots that you'd see on the North Side of Chicago, where optimism is freighted by the burden of the Curse. But real, honest-to-goodness realities that show Willard might be turning that corner after all.
The first part is the nucleus of what's already there. Gibbs and Sina form a talented, complementary backcourt, capable of growing into one of the better backcourts in the Big East. The biggest contributors in the frontcourt are Eugene Teague, Patrik Auda and an emerging Brandon Mobley.
But the most important part of the Pirates' rebirth will step onto campus next year, when Willard's five-man recruiting class will bring with it the unbridled optimism of a consensus top-10 national ranking. It's hands-down the best recruiting class here in more than a decade, since Tommy Amaker was bringing in big-time talents like Eddie Griffin and Andre Barrett.
When I went to watch the Pirates play at a recent game at the Prudential Center in Newark, the team announced that one of next season's signees, combo guard and local product Isaiah Whitehead, had been named to the McDonald's All American game. It was the biggest applause line of the night. This was a huge deal in pacifying a fan base that had been frustrated with Willard losing out on the biggest local recruits.
But it's not just that one player who could soon make Seton Hall a force in the Big East. Whitehead, who might be the best pure scorer in the 2014 recruiting class, will be joined by Dominican Republic native Angel Delgado, a power forward who might be the best rebounder in the 2014 recruiting class. Add three more players from the New York City area and you're talking about a team next season that will have a formidable combination of blue-chip talent and upperclassman experience.
It's the best recruiting class in the nation by a non-blueblood school, a splash that has made the college basketball world take notice of Seton Hall again and bought Willard some time on a seat that might have been getting a little bit warmer with this year's disappointing season.
It's only mid-February, too early for a coach to admit he's already thinking about next year. But just like the Chicago Cubs can point toward having one of the best farm systems in baseball, Seton Hall should look toward next year and beyond with more optimism than a 13-12 record should suggest.
"I look at that so many different ways," Willard told me. "Our win-loss record isn't where I'd want it. But I know the progress we've made here. It's frustrating to me and the staff that the progress we've made isn't always visible. We're not far off."
It's true. They really aren't that far off. Just wait till next year.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.