WEST ORANGE, NJ — Kevin Willard, Seton Hall’s basketball coach and a Westfield father of two, was named Co-Big East Coach of the Year – an award determined before the Big East tournament in a vote by the other coaches in the conference. But Willard wasn’t always a shoe-in for the honor.

Seton Hall went on to win the Big East Tournament Championship game in a thriller over Villanova 69-67 before a capacity crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. Now The Hall is headed to Denver for the NCAA tournament as the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Reginal to play a tough 11th seeded Gonzaga team on Thursday night at 10 p.m.

“All these guys will to win is unbelievable,” said Willard after the Pirates defeated Creighton in its first game of the Big East tournament. “It’s why they are here. It’s why they came as a group. It’s what they’re focused on. It’s why I got co-coach of the year, not because you’ve seen my offense; not great. I got it because of these players.”

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Willard was brought to Seton Hall six years ago to turn around a basketball program that had become marred in coaching dysfunction and winning too few games. Six years later, Seton Hall’s leadership is unquestioned — the wins mounted up quickly this season. The Pirates won 12 out its final 14 games. During that span The Hall twice defeated an Xavier squad ranked inside the top-five nationally and upset the No.3 ranked Villanova in the finals. Seton Hall’s overall record of 25-8  is the most total wins since the 1992-93 season.

But at this time last year, Willard’s job was not secure. Last season the team lost nine of its final 10 games, including a 22 point loss to Marquette in the opening round of the Big East Tournament that ended the Pirates season. With the losses came team dissention. Willard had to convince the Athletic Director Pat Lyons that the talented group of freshman that he had recruited would develop during their sophomore years into the players that they now have become.

Under Willard and his coaching staff this season, the five sophomores that he starts have all flourished and come together as a team, especially during the Big East tournament. Isaiah Whitehead was named Seton Hall’s most outstanding player in the tournament, while Khadeen Carrington and Ismeal Sanogo were named to the All-tournament team.

“He has had those guys for two years now,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said after the game. “Kevin has done a great job with them. And they have a bunch of sophomores out there. They played down the stretch. They executed. They got the right guy the ball and made the right plays. That’s a very good basketball team. A well-coached basketball team. I think that Kevin has done a great job with them.”

After Seton Hall basketball had been down for so long, Willard’s sudden success has entered him into the discussion with the Pirates last great coach, P.J. Carlesimo, who led the Pirates to the 1989 NCAA tournament finals. Willard has developed a friendship with Carlesimo and has benefitted from his support along with that of his athletic director.

“I am lucky to have the best athletic director in the business,” said Willard. “And I am lucky to have the job that I have.”

In addition to being a frequent contributor to Westfield Tap into, Mike Cohen is the founder/director of Throwback Sports and the sports editor of Education Update. He can be reached at throwbacksports@verizon.net