New York basketball always has been in Kevin Willard’s blood, going back to the days when he was the 5-year-old ballboy for St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay. His father, Ralph, was the coach and the youngster knew right then that he wanted to spend his life in the game.
It seemed only natural that, after having played at Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh and worked 10 years for family friend (and St. Dominic alumnus) Rick Pitino in Boston and Louisville, young Willard was going to find his way back to his basketball roots. Sure enough, he coached at Iona before getting his current job at Seton Hall. He is as supportive as anyone of the Garden, the Big East Tournament and players that come from the city.
He proudly will carry the banner of New York-area ball into the NCAA Tournament this coming week, with a team built around three sophomores from New York City schools. Isaiah Whitehead and Desi Rodriguez of Abraham Lincoln High and Khadeen Carrington from Bishop Loughlin have justified their coach’s faith in them and the environs from which they came.
“It’s been a blast, man,” Willard said after his team beat Creighton, 81-73, late Thursday night to set up a semifinal matchup with Xavier Friday night. “I’ve had so much fun watching these guys grow. And they’re still puppies, year-old puppies, but they’re still great.”
Willard knows how it works around here, though. You’ve got to produce. Since he started at Seton Hall five seasons ago, he has seen eras come and go at rivals St. John’s (coach Steve Lavin was fired last year) and Rutgers (Eddie Jordan was fired Thursday). Willard endured some serious jeopardy last season.
At the end of the regular season, he said, “I give Pat Lyons [the athletic director] credit. He could have gotten rid of me last year. I told him, ‘If you stick with me, I promise I’m going to win next year.’ ”