NEWARK — Kevin Willard did not wear the happy look of a man who recently received a contract extension when he took the podium at the Prudential Center Friday night.
Instead, the Seton Hall coach wore the exhausted, frustrated look of a man whose team had just been swept by Rutgers for the first time since the 2000-01 season, had dropped to 3-15 in the Big East and, oh by the way, had a recruit arrested in Illinois for felony robbery.
If Willard could fast-forward the calendar to next year when he hopes his team will be fully healthy and ready to compete in the new Big East, he probably wouldn’t pass up the chance.
“We haven’t played very well this year and I think that’s a combination of a few things,” Willard said after his team lost to arch-rival Rutgers, 56-51, for its 11th defeat in 12 outings. “I have not played a game with a full roster yet; it has been very difficult.”
Despite all the trials and tribulations this season, sources told SNY.tv that Willard received a long-term contract extension, believed to go through the 2019-20 season. His original deal was for five years beginning in 2010.
The school has made no announcement and neither Willard nor athletic director Pat Lyons would comment.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he didn’t know anything about the extension, but told SNY.tv of his protege, “Kevin Willard is one of the best basketball minds I’ve ever worked with. Now they just need to get healthy.”
Seton Hall received another blow Friday when reports out of Illinois indicated that 2013 commit Jerron Wilbut was arrested for felony robbery.
As first reported by SNY.tv in January, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound shooting guard out of St. John’s Northwest Military (WI) committed to Seton Hall and was expected to play a key role next year.
Jane Buege, the public affairs contact at St. John’s, did not immediately respond to an email and phonecall seeking comment.
Wilbut is the second 2013 Seton Hall commit to be arrested, following acclaimed guard Aquille Carr, who was arrested last year for assaulting his baby’s mother and has indicated he may turn pro and play professionally in Europe next season.
Ironically, former Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez was fired in part because of his history of bringing in troubled players who got into legal trouble.
Still, sources at Seton Hall believe that Willard is the right man for the job going forward and that he will win once his team gets healthy. He did, after all, win 20 games a year ago and was on track for an NCAA Tournament bid until late-season losses at DePaul and to Rutgers.
A year from now, when the Pirates enter the new Big East, they are expected to have point guard Sterling Gibbs, who is sitting out after transferring, and forwards Patrik Auda and Brandon Mobley, both of whom are done for the season with injuries.
It remains unclear if one or more current Pirates may transfer or leave the program.
This year, Willard’s team suffered badly without Auda and Mobley.
“I don’t have a huge margin for error and when you lose guys the way we’ve lost them all year and you lose what was our best position, our power forward position, and you play a two guard and a small forward there, you’re just not going to be very successful in this league,” Willard said.
“I like the guys on this roster. I like these guys. It’s just a matter of we’re not good enough to play with seven guys, and we’re really not good enough to play with three centers and only four guards. So hopefully barring the four surgeries that we’re going to get after the season, everybody gets healthy and we can have a healthy year next year.”
Until then, the Pirates will close out the season by opening the last Big East Tournament ever against USF on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Their season could come to a merciful end there, or they could survive for one more day.
For Willard, his staff and his players, next year can’t get here quick enough.