To prepare Seton Hall for what’s ahead, Kevin Willard takes the long view
Why the coach’s early-season philosophy explains how the Pirates have started slow in recent games.
NEWARK – Players aren’t the only ones working on themselves in the first month of the season.
Coaches, like their charges, also must look inward and make decisions on what to change, what to improve, what to commit the most focus to as the games start to come hot and heavy.
This portion of the schedule between Seton Hall’s trip to Fort Myers, Fla., and its big-time December stretch featuring a battle with No. 7 Texas provides a glimpse into how Kevin Willard is tinkering with the Pirates’ gameday strategy, the specific choices he’s making and the side effects they have.
Wednesday’s 85-63 win over Wagner looks fine on paper, but the Pirates only led by two at halftime. The previous time out, against Bethune-Cookman — which represents one of the weakest conferences in men’s basketball — the Pirates trailed by one at the break before kicking into gear.
That sure looks like a pattern at first glance. It leads some to ask, What do you need to do to come out stronger at the start of the game? Translation: Why aren’t you boat-racing these guys in the first several minutes?
That question is a vague conversation starter, part of the sports writer’s beginner’s handbook. The more interesting question to ask is, What is your team doing differently between the first half and second that’s leading to such different results on the court?
Willard offered specifics Wednesday night.
“I shortened the rotation,” the coach said. “To be honest with you, I know we’re gonna struggle in the first half playing nine guys as many minutes as I’m playing them. I knew we were gonna struggle. It’s hard to play that many guys that many minutes and expect them to play and be in rhythm and kind of flow with it. But I’m still trying to figure this out.”
Seton Hall did use nine different players in the first 20 minutes, and eight of them managed to score. Its leading scorer at halftime was in fact a six-way tie at five points apiece. But Wagner made one more shot than Hall and looked too comfortable in the paint.
To Willard, it’s early enough in the season to dig deep in his bench and test different lineup combinations. It also leads to a so-called “double-edged sword” – come the second half, the benefit is his players still have enough in the tank to wear the other team down. (See Seton Hall’s comeback win over Michigan: Eight Pirates contributed scoring and defense during the second half.)
“Defensively it’s been great,” Willard said. “It’s helped us, and I think it helps us in the second half playing so many guys. But offensively we’re having a hard time finding a rhythm early in games with so many guys coming in and out.”
Part two of Willard’s answer dealt with the press defense. And this is where Willard got really honest.
“I know if we pressed early in the games and got after it, we’d probably be hitting a better rhythm offensively, but that’s not what these games are for,” he said. “I really want to work on stuff and try to work on certain defensive concepts. It’s helped us. I know especially ... on a Wednesday night at 7:00 versus Wagner, I know how the crowd’s gonna be, so it’s always helped us to press, but at the same time with this team I need to see lineups, I need to see offensive plays, I need to see stuff.
“That’s why I don’t press in the first half. It drives everybody nuts. It drives me nuts. But for the most part, I know what the outcome of the game was gonna be. It’s just a matter of, are we getting better? Are we helping each other?”
There was no way to sound humble while saying it. But to Willard’s credit, his teams are now 30-3 against mid-major and low-major opponents since the start of the 2016-17 season. Those three losses were all to Atlantic 10 teams, perhaps the preeminent mid-major league out there. And Willard is intimately familiar with Wagner by now, having faced them every season since 2017-18.
Just look at how Rutgers’ season is going, with its losses to Lafayette and UMass, for contrast. Willard has his players ready to play – ready to win – even if they aren’t blowing the little guys off the court immediately.
By no means did Willard shrug off the slow starts, and for what it’s worth, neither did his players. Here were the first words out of Jared Rhoden’s mouth:
“This is our second game in a row I think that we played pretty poorly in the first half. We had a good conversation in the locker room about how important it is to perform two halves. So I think everyone came out with a little chip on their shoulder, a little bit more edgy, and I think it picked up in intensity.”
Rhoden helped lead that halftime talk, according to Willard and Tyrese Samuel, as the senior continues to grow into an increased leadership role. Rhoden and Samuel each finished with 15 points, two of six players in double figures.
Next up Saturday is a meeting with Nyack College, a Division II program. The game will serve as a tune-up for Texas, Rutgers, a very good Rick Pitino-led Iona team, and then bam – it’s already Big East season. We’ll check back to see if Willard has shortened that first-half rotation by then.
Time to clean the glass with other notes and observations floating around...
I didn’t mention Kadary Richmond, and there should be time later this season for me to go more in-depth on him, but I want to say for the record: 10 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals is a pretty nice line. It took Richmond a bit of time to get going in November, but that was a great all-around performance Wednesday. “This is the game I’ve been waiting for Kadary to have,” Rhoden said. “He’s probably the best passer I’ve ever seen, and I think his potential is amazing.”
Michigan really lost by 21 last night? It’s not easy to visit a program like North Carolina and win, but something has been going wrong in Ann Arbor ever since Juwan Howard inked that contract extension and trotted his players out to meet Seton Hall. Never thought I’d say this, but at least they’ve got football going for them.
Hofstra 81, Princeton 77. That’s two losses in three games for Princeton after its hot start, though it nearly completed a monster comeback after falling behind by 19. The Tigers shot 54.4 percent from the field. Great. They gave up 50 points in the first half. Uh, less great.
Kudos to the Princeton women’s team for earning its first win over a ranked opponent since 1978, and on the road, no less. The Tigers beat No. 22 Florida Gulf Coast 58-55, with Abby Meyers making the go-ahead basket and Ellie Mitchell grabbing the clinching steal in the dying seconds. The program that produced Bella Alaire and Blake Dietrick might be going places again.