If you've been following the "Temp Basketball Thread", over the past couple days I've wallpapered the comments there with reasons to be optimistic – or, at least not pessimistic – about Kevin Willard. I thought it might make sense to gather those things here in one place, rather than leave them scattered among those comments.
Just to be clear, all I'm trying to say here is that it's NOT necessary & inevitable that Willard is going to suck and fail here. But it's hard to make those arguments without going overboard and making it sound like I think Willard is going to be the next Jay Wright / Jim Valvano / Tony Bennett. I don't really think that (although obvi I'd love for that to prove true!). I'm just saying, the arguments that Willard must suck, seem very weak to me.
The anti-Willard case seems to rest on these four ideas:
- Willard sucks in the postseason, having gone 1-5 in the NCAAT
- Willard is Turgeon 2.0 / New Turge; his teams play slow and boring
- Maryland should've hired a younger more exciting coach, like Shaheen Holloway
- Coaches "are who they are" after 10 years; Willard is not going to show improvement
Thanks to McHale2Bias and ShotsWithGary for engaging with me in those comments. I just want to get it all down "on the record" before the signing period opens in a couple days. Then we'll have other stuff to talk about; and we'll have some indication if any of what I said below is true, or if it's all bullshit wishful thinking. :)
1. Willard sucks in the postseason, having gone 1-5 in the NCAAT
So no concern on how the Hall got pounded in the NCAA games?
1-5 in the NCAAs is god awful…
I wouldn’t say "NO" concern about the record in the NCAAT. It’s at least a yellow caution flag, right? If not an outright red one? It demands closer examination.
Overall Willard did not get "pounded" in the NCAAs. There was one really bad performance: unfortunately it was this year. But if word had leaked that Willard was out the door, and his kids were distracted / dispirited / whatever, then I can overlook that one. I don’t love it, but it’s explainable. His other NCAAT losses aren’t bad. I think the only one against a lower-seeded team was to 11th-seeded Gonzaga? And that was a seeding travesty that year.
One thing I want a coach to do is have his team ready to play well in March. To get a fuller picture of that I would look at Willard’s record in ALL postseason tournaments, not just the NCAA. Overall his record is this:
NIT : 1-1
BEast 12-10 (1 champship; 1 other trip to finals)
That’s not bad at all. It soothes my concern that Willard's teams are never ready for March. Also his 2020 squad was projected to be a 3-seed in the NCAAT (by BracketMatrix). If they had gone to the S16 (reasonable for a 3-seed), then Willard's record in the NCAA would be 3-6; a little luck in the draw and it could be 4-6. That looks very different from 1-5.
So: it’s not that I have NO concern at all about the NCAAT record. I just think that after looking at the context, I think the record doesn’t tell the whole story.
when other teams are peaking (UNC, this year) at the end of the year with great efforts, Turge’s teams and Kevin’s teams are getting there asses kicked on the boards and on loose balls.
That's been true of Turge’s teams, but I don’t think we can make that blanket statement about Willard’s.
- The Big East Tournament champship, and the other trip to the conf tournament finals, are proof that Willard has had at least a couple teams that were playing good ball in March.
- Also see Willard’s 2019 team. That one had four new starters and shouldn’t have made the NCAAT; but they went on a late-season run to clinch a bid. That’s "peaking at the end of the year with great efforts."
- Also Willard’s 2018 team took eventual National Runner-Up Kansas to the wall in the NCAAT, losing 83-79 in the second round. That’s a loss, but a strong showing; not a weak performance.
This year’s Willard squad DID choke in the NCAAT. Just an awful performance. But it’s wrong to say that that’s been the norm for his teams.
I quoted this Twitter thread before; it has detail on all of Willard’s games in the NCAAT:
The only really bad one is this year. Here’s what he writes about the five losses (I’m leaving out the win, which was in 2018):
• 2016: #11 Gonzaga 68, #6 Seton Hall 52
Zags were a top-25 team and made the Sweet 16. Should not have been an 11-seed.
• 2017: #8 Arkansas 77, #9 Seton Hall 71
Seton Hall was up with less than a minute to go. Angelo Delgado in foul trouble most of the game. Arkansas nearly beat eventual champ UNC two days later.
• 2018: #1Kansas 83, #8 Seton Hall 79
Game was played in Kansas. 1-seed Kansas went on to make the championship game that year, losing to Villanova.
• 2019: #7 Wofford 84, #10 Seton Hall 68
Wofford is not a "name" program; but in 2019 (coached by Mike Young) they made the AP top-25 the last 3 polls before the NCAAT; the final poll post-Tournament had them #19 . Wofford was #18 in KenPom (Hall was #60). Wofford was a bombs-away squad that year, making 11 threes per game on 41.4% shooting on the season. In this game they hit 13, shooting 46.4% from three. Hall had 4 new starters, shouldn’t have made Tournament that year but went on a late-season run and advanced to the Big East title game, losing by two to Villanova. Overall that looks to me like a good coaching job by Willard, maybe an excellent one, not a bad one.
• 2020: no tournament
Willard’s best team. #20 in KenPom, likely a 3-seed (BracketMatrix).
• 2022: #9 TCU 69, #8 Seton Hall 42
Really terrible performance. Twitter guy says "It looked like the team quit" which makes him wonder if they knew Willard was out the door.
The losses from 2016-19 seem very respectable. Games against a #1 seed, against a mis-seeded Gonzaga team, one where they were up with a min to go and their best player in foul trouble, and one where even making the tournament was an impressive coaching job. This record would look a lot different if the 2020 tournament was played.
I don’t like Willard’s loss this year; but honestly it’s not as bad a performance as Gary’s team’s loss to St Johns in the 1999 NCAAT. Doesn’t disqualify him as a coach, to my mind.
2. Willard is Turgeon 2.0 / New Turge; his teams play slow and boring
This is a comment about "pace".
So, for one thing: Willard did a radio appearance the day he was hired ~2 weeks ago. This link below has highlights from the interview:
They ask him about how he plans to play:
ON HIS TEAM’S PLAYING STYLE
"What we want to do is we want to embrace the defensive grind that the Big Ten is, but I really want to get back to – and I did it four or five years ago when I had a deeper roster – was getting up and down, being able to play nine guys, being able to press much more than I have in the past. In the past three years, just haven’t been able to press because my roster hasn’t been deep enough. And the big thing is, if you’re going to press and you’re going to go up and down, you got to be able to make sure that you have the roster in the Big Ten. Because you’re going to go up against guys like Hunter Dickerson. You’re going to have to grind against teams like Michigan State, you’re going to have to play slow every once a while against a team like Rutgers, because they’re going to make you play slow. So I think the style of basketball in conferences, has a huge effect"
Lots of things to like about that quote. What catches your eye first is "getting up and down" and "playing nine guys" and "press much more than I have". An explicit emphasis on a more uptempo playing style. But the other thing I like is that he’s already thinking tactically, about how different B1G opponents will try to match up and force your hand. That’s cool.
When we talk about "pace", we don't have to go by impressions or feel. There's actual data available on pace.
Willard has never been as slow as Turge. That's not saying much: damn few power conference-coaches are as slow as Dirge. Bawlmer Sports & Life put up some KenPom numbers on Willard back in January: offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and pace over the past 6 or 7 seasons:
I took the data from their pace chart, and added this year’s pace numbers from KenPom. Here the past seven seasons, including this year:
Pace of play
21-22….167th…..211th* (more Manning than Turge)
Summary of data:
- Willard’s teams played significantly faster than Turge’s in 6 out of the 7 seasons.
- Willard’s median team was in the top third of "pace".
- Turge’s median team was in the bottom third.
- Willard’s teams were in the top 100 (barely) for pace 4 out of the last 7 seasons.
- (I’m being generous and including the 103 in 17-18.)
- Willard’s teams were in the top half for pace in 5 of 7 seasons. Every Turge team was in the bottom half.
(When I say "top third" and "bottom third": there are 358 teams, so anything higher than #119 is in the top third. Anything below 238 is in the bottom third. 179 is the cutoff for top half / bottom half.)
Willard did not play particularly slow at Seton Hall. I mean, it wasn’t Paul Westhead or the Run-&-Gun Suns or Showtime or anything like that. It wasn’t Gonzaga or Roy Williams. But it was perfectly "normal" power-conference basketball. As fast as usual for good teams.
Another good comparison is Willard vs Izzo, because I think they have similar philosophies: great defense, excellent rebounding, "opportunistic" or controlled fast break; set plays on offense. Also Izzo is the most accomplished coach in the B1G, and he plays a winning brand of ball. He’s been especially successful in the NCAAT. Izzo is toward the end of what I would consider an "acceptably fun" pace of play to watch and root for. I wouldn’t call him too slow necessarily, but I wouldn’t want to have to root for teams that played any slower.
Here’s Willard versus Izzo in Pace, last seven years:
Pace of play
There was only one season where Izzo played significantly faster, the 2020-21 season; and they were about the same this past year. In the other five seasons, Willard played faster; usually he played significantly faster. Bottom line: Willard tended to play significantly faster than Izzo, even at Seton Hall. That’s good news, I think, for what we can look forward to here in terms of "pace".
We can also compare Willard’s "average" pace (actually median) over the past seven seasons at the Hall with some notable teams from this year. Here are some ranked teams from this season that played slower in Pace than Willard's median 103rd rank:
Miami of Larranaga – Coaches#16 (134th in Pace)
Michigan St – OthersRecvg (147th)
Kentucky – AP#7 (150th)
Tennessee – AP#5 (157th)
Baylor – AP#4 (163rd)
Duke – AP#9 (172nd)
Illinois – AP#19 (179th)
Michigan – Coaches#25 (203rd)
Wisconsin – AP#14 (215th)
Texas Tech – AP#12 (218th)
Purdue – AP#10 (237)
Providence – AP#13 (276th)
Houston – AP#15 (338th)
Villanova – AP#6 (347th)
Willard’s teams at Seton Hall were not that slow. His teams tended on average to play faster than this year's Kentucky, Tennessee, Baylor & Duke squads did. Is that too slow? Really? And he plans to play faster at Maryland, with more athletes.
3. Maryland should've hired a younger more exciting coach, like Shaheen Holloway
I certainly don’t want a small sample size guy either… Are your expectations that low for MD? Or do you feel just being at MD will boost Willard that much?
There's a reason you don't go with a young & inexperienced coach at a place like Maryland. I think what’s attractive about Willard, as opposed to a younger coach like Shaheen who has only been doing it for 3 seasons, is that Willard seems to understand program building. He may or may not be good enough "tactically" for where we want to go, or may not play a style that you particularly want to watch; but it’s clear that he understands program-building.
Willard’s introductory press conference gave hints of that, from the warmth he showed to his old place, to the way he acknowledged the "stakeholders" at the new place (Gary; fans by name-checking Francis, J Smith, Blake, Dixon; Kevin Plank; the president and AD).
Then we found out that Willard’s contract with Maryland specifies a good competitive budget for top assistants. Also the budget for staff positions, including the new Director of Recruiting Operations or whatever, that has never existed for Maryland basketball. Those are serious pro moves. They show an experienced coach who understands what a "program" is and has a serious, actionable plan for how to win at Maryland. I'm not trying to say anything bad about Shaheen (whom I respect a lot): but an up-&-coming mid-major coach who's never been the HC at a high-major program, probably does not insist on that stuff in the contract negotiation stage.
Willard’s assistant-coach hires do even more to show an understanding of this area and of "program building". The #1 goal of Maryland hoops these past ~20 years has been to dominate local recruiting. Willard’s first two AC hires show that he understands the situation, and is commited to that goal. Taken all together, the contract stuff and the assistant coaches and the Director of Recruiting (a noted Baltimore guy), it looks like an unprecedented commitment to local recruiting. That's everything we could ask for at launch. Time will tell if it will work: but in terms of organization and planning, it's just about perfect.
Willard (or his program) has already shown serious chops in player development at Seton Hall. He brought over Grant Billmeier, who was the primary skill developer for the bigs at the Hall. Some names to his/their credit are Angel Delgado, first-team All-Big-East and winner of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award, and Sandro Mamukelashvili, Big East Player of the Year. New Maryland assistant Tony Skinn worked with guards for Willard at Seton Hall; Skinn's resume includes Quincy McKnight; Myles Powell, who was the #84 ranked high school prospect and became Big East Player of the Year and winner of the Jerry West award; and (at La Tech) DaQuan Brace, who was a 3- or 2-star depending on which ranking you look at, and who developed into 1st-team All-Conf-USA as a senior.
So recruiting and player development seem to be getting all the first-class top-flight attention we could hope for. We’ll have to wait to see how it pans out; but at launch it looks very promising.
4. Coaches "are who they are" after 10 years; Willard is not going to show improvement
Perhaps Kevin did get better at his job and will continue to. I never even considered that… I don’t think that is a common thread in college basketball. Where a coach is at the same school and than after 5 or 6 seasons he improves
The thing is, it looks like Willard DID improve about ~5 seasons into his Seton Hall tenure. This piece in The Athletic describes an improvement or "maturation" process for Willard:
‘You better want to work’: How Kevin Willard has built Seton Hall into a consistent top 25 program
By Dana O’Neil | Jan 15, 2020
Blessed with the arrogance of ignorance and the promise of his first big-time job, he brazenly waltzed into the living rooms of recruits, following on the heels of the old-time Big East coaches such as Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim, and thought he had a chance. He looks back now, at the 34-year-old bristling with big-time dreams and no real plans to achieve them, and shakes his head. He wonders if he had done things right from the get-go, developed some sort of long-term plan instead of just getting starry-eyed about a quick hit, if he would have saved himself some misery. "I walk into my first meeting and there’s Pitino, Calhoun, Boeheim, Mick Cronin, Buzz Williams and I’m like, Holy shit!" he says. "But I was just, you’re just stupid. It took me a while to realize I was wasting my time."
He figured it out soon enough. Thanks to some blunt assessments from Ralph and the even more blunt realities of a string of lousy records, Willard learned what suited Seton Hall and what didn’t.
Pat Lyons never dropped the axe. The athletic director, who is now the school’s executive vice president, hired Willard at Iona, and he believed in his coach’s plan. The two met almost daily, informally usually, and Lyons believed that Willard, finally matured on the job, had a workable plan. He also knew Seton Hall needed stability. Since the glory days of P.J. Carlesimo, no Hall coach has lasted five seasons, an untenable turnover rate. "All coaches go through a maturation process, learning from their past mistakes and what they can and can’t control," Lyons says. "I believed in Kevin and that he was trying to build this the right way. The only way he could do that was if I partnered with him."
I agree with you that it is not USUAL for coaches to improve significantly. Most coaches sort of are who they are. But I’ve followed the Ravens pretty fanatically over the last ~20 years, and John Harbaugh has shown me that it is possible for a coach to grow & evolve. When you’ve got a coach who’s pretty good, and will grow & evolve, that can be pretty special.
The part I excerpted above deals mostly with recruiting; or I guess strategy / targeting in recruiting, along with budgeting time/resources. But there’s also a section in the article about attitude and Willard adjusting his approach to practices and players and their personal lives in the wake of an intervention from his wife. See also the Jeff Goodman interview vid in the last section of this post, about a "come to Jesus" meeting with his Athletic Director at about the same time. There could be a bright line in the sand, a before/after where Willard suddenly matured as a head coach.
On this topic, let's sidetrack and look at an example of a coach with 10+ years at a power-conference school, with a rep for choking in the NCAAT and not being able to win the big one:
Nowadays people forget this, but in the offseason after 2000 Gary Williams was on, if not a hot seat, then at least a warm seat. He'd been at Maryland for 11 years. A few of his first season were marred by NCAA probation, so comparison with Willard is unfair to Gary from that aspect. But Willard's first few seasons at the Hall, he was rebuilding from the fiasco under Bobby Gonzalez. That's not as bad as violations & probation; but it was a disaster, so I'm going to argue that a comp is not completely bonkers.
For the seven seasons 1993 to 2000, Gary got criticism for underperforming in the NCAAT. He was a "good but not great" coach. He was a defensive-minded coach whose teams were tough & gritty, but he was stale & unimaginative on offense, and his teams would go thru scoring droughts that doomed them. Gary could get a program to a certain level of respectability, but he would never break thru and have the kind of success that say a Tom Izzo had. Gary was a "high floor / low ceiling" coach. Maryland should move on and get a splashier coach, like a Rick Pitino or a Billy Donovan.
Gary's two most recent teams had their seasons ended with embarassing losses in the NCAAT:
• The 2000 squad got absolutely POUNDED by UCLA, I mean butt-fucked, 105 to 70.
They looked like little boys, like a middle-school team competing against a high-school team. And that UCLA squad wasn't very impressive; unranked after mid-January, they lost handily to Iowa St in the next game, 80 to 56.
• The 1999 squad had if anything a worse game against St Johns.
They had a TEN-minute scoring drought to end the 1st half against St Johns. The team was ranked in the top 5 going into the Tournament. They had Steve Francis, Terence Morris, Laron Profit and Obinna Ekezie, along with role-players Dan Miller, Terrell Stokes, Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter & Mike Mardesich. Six players from that roster would go on to play in the NBA. There is no way in fuck that a squad with that much talent could go 10 mins in a college basketball game without scoring. But they did. It was probably the worst performance from a college basketball offense that I've ever seen in my life: panic, rushed shots, hero ball, scatter-brained disorganization. Awful.
Willard got heavily criticized for this year's NCAAT loss, where his team went thru a 4- or 5-min scoring drought and looked unprepared or like they didn't show up. But Seton Hall's performance in this year's NCAAT game was not worse than Maryland's in 1999. It couldn't be.
Not to hammer this too hard, but a lot of the shit people were saying about Gary in the Summer of 2000 is EXACTLY what critics are saying about Kevin Willard now. I mean, exactly.
As an aside, I always hate hearing that so-and-so "can't win The Big One". I think it's lazy and ignorant. One of the reasons is Gary's career. I feel like, generally, competitors "can't win the big one" until suddenly they do. Gary, for one. Peyton Manning. John Harbaugh (oh-for-2 in the conference title game, until suddenly breaking thru in 2012 with a team that probably wasn't quite as good overall as some of his previous squads). Phil Mickelson couldn't win a Major, until suddenly he did at age 34. Now he's a great champion with 6 major titles.
The year Willard's Hall team won the Big East tournament, 2016, their opponent in the conference final was Villanova. Nova went on to win the NCAAT that season; so Willard's was the last team to beat Villanova that year. If you can beat the eventual National Champ in one big March tournament game, you can beat other teams in March tournament games. At that point it just comes down to matchups and a little bit of luck.
Willard at this point in his career reminds me of these coaches:
• Gary pre- Steve Blake
• Tony Bennett pre-UVa
• Mitch Cronin pre-UCLA
All of them defensive-minded head coaches with unimpressive offenses, who mostly coached at smaller schools (not Gary) and who hadn't really won anything big yet. There's no promise Willard will make a similar jump, of course; but Willard does have a couple encouraging qualities, his player-centric focus and his attention to program-building, that could make a real difference.
Honestly, Jay Wright in his first 10 seasons (7 at Hofstra and first 3 at Villanova, thru 2004) did not have any more success than Willard has had so far. I would say Wright had less success. Wright didn't make a Sweet 16 until his 11th season as a HC; the run of Final Fours and championships came sort of out of the blue. I'm *not* saying that Wright is a very good comp for Willard; their styles are different. Wright is more offense-focused than Willard, and I have more faith in a style like Wright's free-flowing motion-based offense than in a set-play offense. I'm just saying, when you look at coaches who have great success, creators of Final Four -level programs; if you expect that they show flashes of NCAAT success early, Jay Wright is *NOT* an example of that.
(Neither is Krzyzewski, whose first ten seasons were "unremarkable". But of course it was a different era; and it's hard to know how to measure 5 seasons at Army.)
Obviously none of this guarantee a damn thing. Willard could flame out and suck, very easily. Failure is always more likely than success, in major sports. But it's absurd to treat it as though Willard is an awful hire who can't succeed.
Miscellaneous Willard stuff you may not have seen
Actually you probably have seen this first one before – it was linked in the comments an earlier post – but I like it a lot so I wanted to include it with the material here:
Half-Court Offense: Quick with Kevin Willard
By Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan | March 15, 2022
Some stuff I like about this:
• Pace: push the ball up QUICK after a made basket. Get it across in 4 seconds.
• Philosophy: all 5 players touch in early offense (unless there's a defensive lapse for a quick shot).
• Tone: I really like how Willard talks to these players. Simultaneously respectful and pushing.
That last might be more important to me than to others. But this isn't the old-school days of Bobby Knight or even Bob Huggins. In the modern era you have to be courteous and kind-of nice to players: treat them as human beings. While at the same time demanding performance & execution from them. It can be a narrow path. Guys like John Harbaugh pull it off. Jay Wright, certainly. Willard seems to have some of that (at least in this clinic setting). Maybe he's a nasty sunuvabitch when the camera's are off; but I bet not.
The Seton Hall Legacy of Kevin Willard
By Brendan Balsamo | April 10, 2022
In three seasons at [Iona], Willard took the program from being ranked in the bottom 10 in the country in the Ratings Percentage Index, to going 21-10 in 2009-10 and being ranked in the Top 80 of the RPI.
Myles Powell came to South Orange as the 82nd ranked recruit in ESPN's Top 100 in 2017 ... He earned the Big East's Most Improved Player after his sophomore year ... eventually scored 2,000 points in his Pirate career, won Big East Player of the Year and the Haggerty Award and was the school's first consensus All-American since 1953. [Currently with 76ers on a 2-way contract with G-league]
bigs highlighted by Michael Nzei and Romaro Gill called attention to assistant coach Grant Billmeier's excellent development of forwards. Nzei, Gill, Mamukelashvili, and Ike Obiagu flourished in Willard and Billmeier's system ... The junior-year jumps made by Powell, Mamukelashvili, and Jared Rhoden showed how well Willard gets the best out of his players
His [Willard's] animation on the sidelines was infectious, making his reactions to winning the 2016 Big East Championship and beating No. 9 Kentucky iconic images for Hall fans.
But most of all, Willard turned these players into men. In their final press conference after their NCAA Tournament loss to TCU, Cale and Rhoden shared the same sentiment: "I came to Seton Hall a boy, and I left a man because of Kevin Willard."
It's a good read, despite the corny "I'm a man thanks to him" bit. One weird thing, the article sort of makes the case that Shaheen Holloway was the man responsible for all of Willard's recruiting successes. I think it flat-out says that Willard just coached the guys that Shaheen brought him. like Willard was a passenger or something. But then it goes on to say that Willard's best teams came after Shaheen left. I don't get how those two things go together. But it's an encouraging read, for those of us wondering how players might respond to Willard.
Here's a fairly short (only about 15 mins, if you peel of the ~2 min intro and the 2 or 3 min outro) podcast interview with Willard after his hiring:
Hear the Turtle: Kevin Willard
Lots more about playing an uptempo, fun style of ball. He makes an entertaining comment toward the end, something about how if you're fan coming to the game, you gotta sit in beltway traffic, you're a little grumpy when you get here – I want you to be grumpy! But when you leave I want you to be happy because you saw an entertaining, passionate brand of basketball. A good listen.
Finally, if you want a real sense of Willard's personality, here's an outstanding interview from just before the 2020 season started:
Jeff Goodman and Robbie Hummel Interview Kevin Willard
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9I_1eACSQ6c (48 mins)
This is a great & entertaining watch. Goodman & Hummel really joke around with Willard; they also rag on Zagoria, whom they all know. The Hall was coming off the season when the tournament got cancelled; they had been Big East reg-season champs. They talk about that, and about impact of covid on the sports world. Lots of tidbits about his years with Pitino, and his relationship with Frank Vogel. In my opinion the vid makes it very obvious that Willard is a better fit personality-wise for this area than Turge was.
One interesting thing from this; I mentioned above that the piece about Willard in The Athletic by Dana O'Neil references Willard's wife laying down the law to Willard, prompting a change in coaching attitude. In this vid, Goodman mentions a come-to-Jesus meeting with the athletic director at Seton Hall. If I've done the math right, that was the same offseason as the lecture from Willard's wife. (I might be off by one.) Makes it seem like there's a clear line in Willard's record at Seton Hall, where before that line his teams were bad and after that line his teams were good. That "line" seems to happen with these talks from wife & AD. In the vid he says he started coaching more laid-back, more relaxed. Running plays he never would have run before, when he was more uptight. There's a clear implication of, dammit even if I'm going to lose I'm going to start coaching "my" way and have fun. Maybe we can look back at that offseason and say that's the "moment" when Willard matured as a coach and became really good.
Hope so, anyway. We'll see what happens!