SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Late in a tight January game against Villanova, Seton Hall’s star guard Isaiah Whitehead dove hard to the floor for a loose ball. Just as he landed, Coach Kevin Willard gave his customary quick-handed energized clap. This time, though, he punctuated it with a Tiger Woods fist pump and then let out a “Yes, way to go.”  

Whitehead not only came up with the ball on the play but was fouled in the process. This is the exact effort and high intensity defensive play that the always-enthusiastic Willard is looking for from his young team.

“This is a game that you take a lot of positives from,” Willard said in his sixth year with the Pirates. “Our effort was great. You learn from the things that you do well and the bad things we just have to get better. That’s the part of playing games and learning.”

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Seton Hall ended up losing 72-71 in the game against the more experienced Villanova squad, currently the number-one ranked basketball team in the country. Whitehead, a sophomore, went on to score 21 points and the team played hard throughout the contest.

For Willard, who lives in Westfield with his wife and their two elementary school-age boys, this has been a pivotal year in his tenure as the Seton Hall basketball coach. Last year a tough defeat often would spiral into another loss, which in turn would result in a negative effect on team morale.  

This season has been different. A common theme heard in post-game press conferences from Coach Willard and the players is how the team “bounces back” after a disappointing loss or a bumpy stretch within a game. Seton Hall not only bounced back after the loss to Villanova, it leaped all the way to third place, winning four of its next six games in the highly-competitive Big East. That’s not bad for a team that was predicted in the preseason to be seventh in the 10 team conference.

Still, with six games remaining in league play, the Pirates have a shared vision to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. In order to do so, it needs to maintain a level of focus that has not wavered since the start of training camp back in October.

For a team comprised mostly of sophomores, this is still a learning experience. Willard, very aware of how important it is for his to team maintain its confidence, leads with a steady upbeat attitude, continually reinforcing the importance of hard work and determination to his players, even living the lifestyle himself.

“He’s very passionate,” said 6’8” sophomore forward Ismael Sanogo, who is in contention for Big East defensive player of the year," and that passion carries on through me. He runs, like, seven miles before practice and at away games. I think that’s insane. It shows he has great love for this and I want to do the same as he does on the court.”

Before moving to Westfield for the Seton Hall job, Willard was the head coach at Iona College for three seasons. He brought the Gaels from a team that had won just two games the year before he arrived to 21 wins in his final year there, garnering the attention of bigger schools. He eventually chose to rebuild a Pirate program that had been marred in coaching dysfunction and was just not winning enough games.

At 40 years old, Willard has been coaching basketball at various levels and locations since he left the University of Pittsburgh in 1997 after playing point guard for the Panthers. The son of college and NBA coaching standout Ralph Willard, Kevin Willard has been surrounded by an array of coaching mentors, none bigger than his dad’s close friend and colleague, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino. 

Pitino brought the 22 year-old Willard with him to Boston to learn the profession with the Celtics in the late 1990’s, staying with the coaching Hall of Famer for close to 10 years.  After the Celtics, Willard followed Pitino back to the college game with Louisville for six seasons. At Louisville, Willard worked all the way up to being Pitino’s top assistant, preparing himself to be a college head coach. He became entrenched in the Pitino methodology, in effect getting a PhD in basketball coaching.

With Pitino and his staff, Willard learned their formula for winning basketball, which stresses all-out hustle, defensive prowess and a motivational approach that allows players to believe in themselves to improve beyond what they thought was possible. And, perhaps most importantly for a young coach, Pitino was a role model for Willard, displaying a disciplined work ethic that is legendary. He drove his assistants just as hard as he did his players. The working conditions may not have always been pleasant but, in the end, there was no better education for a coach.

“He’s the hardest working coach I’ve ever seen,” said Sanogo, who Wiilard has said is the hardest working player he has ever coached or played with. “After losses, I don’t think he sleeps. He breaks down film for hours and hours and comes back in the next morning. You can see that on his face that he hasn’t been asleep. Then he critiques us, but it’s all constructive criticism. We learned from coach that negativity is never going to help out. Even though we go through tough situations as a team, staying positive is always the key.”

In this year’s Big East, with eight of the 10 teams so evenly matched, any lapse into negativity can make it very difficult to bounce back.

Mike Cohen is a contributor to TAP into Westfield and Founder/Director of Throwback Sports, a sports program for children. He lives with his wife and two elementary school-age daughters in Westfield. Cohen can be reached at throwbacksports@verizon.net.