Seton Hall’s Problems Start at the Very Top

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 19th, 2015

Ask most people and they will tell you that strong leadership is a prerequisite to success in nearly every organization. There are countless examples of human beings responding positively to great leadership, especially in the sports world. It is simply human nature. People want to believe they are part of something greater than themselves. It is a big reason why coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari have such a fantastic ability to get the most from their players. They command respect and require that personal agendas and egos are set aside for the good of the organization. If you do not want to commit to the process and live up to their necessary standards, you are shown the door. Duke junior Rasheed Sulaimon found that out the hard way last month. It is understandable, however, that not every team will have such strong leadership. Exceptional leaders like Krzyzewski and Calipari are rare. But when a complete void in leadership exists, problems can quickly spiral out of control.

Kevin Willard (USA Today Images)

Kevin Willard is Feeling the Heat as This Season Gets Away From Him (USA Today Images)

A little over five weeks ago, the Seton Hall men’s basketball team was riding high after Sterling Gibbs swished a three in the final seconds that allowed his team to come out on top of a pesky Creighton squad that had outplayed the Pirates for most of the game. The win moved the team to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in Big East play, enabling it to stay in the Top 25 after entering at No. 19 the previous Monday. Barring a complete collapse, an NCAA Tournament berth appeared inevitable; after all, Seton Hall’s hot start had also included a résumé-building win over previously unbeaten Villanova, the undisputed king of the new Big East.

Fast forward to the present and Seton Hall is in the midst of a monumental collapse where it appears the only way to gain entry into the NCAA Tournament would be to win the Big East Tournament next month. Once projected as high as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed by reputable bracketologists at CBS and ESPN, the Hall has lost eight of its last 10 games (including five straight) to fall to 5-9 in Big East play with no end to the death spiral in sight. The ugliest moment came on Monday night in a loss to that same Villanova team. The Wildcats blew out the Pirates by a score of 80-54 and Gibbs was ejected after punching a defenseless Ryan Arcidiacono — who was on the floor going after a loose ball at the time — square in the forehead. Swift consequences came quickly for Gibbs, who was suspended for two games by Seton Hall on Tuesday afternoon. Once a candidate for Big East Player of the Year, the junior guard will sit out games at St. John’s this Saturday and home versus Creighton the next weekend. Monday night’s antics were just another symptom of the deeper problem at Seton Hall, which brings us back to leadership.

Seton Hall’s head coach is Kevin Willard. A former top assistant to legendary Louisville head man Rick Pitino, Willard is in his fifth season at the South Orange, New Jersey, school. Coming from a background that includes Pitino and his father Ralph Willard, a successful head coach at Western Kentucky and later Holy Cross, it would appear that Willard has what it takes to be successful in this business. After nearly five years at a major conference school, his results suggest otherwise. Through Monday night’s game, Willard is now 81-77 overall at Seton Hall but sports a putrid 29-57 mark in Big East play. Most people in the college basketball world recognize that his position is not an easy one. Despite a vast improvement in fundraising and facilities over the last five years, Seton Hall is still a small Catholic school in a media market where professional sports draw the most attention. Willard took a gamble in replacing former head coach Bobby Gonzalez, who embarrassed his way out of South Orange after four tumultuous years. However, the leadership and chemistry issues Seton Hall is experiencing this season are unfortunately nothing new on Willard’s watch. Let’s take a look at what has transpired in the four years prior to this season’s collapse.

  • 2010-11: Star player Jeremy Hazell broke his wrist in November and was actually shot in New York over Christmas break as well. Keon Lawrence and Jamel Jackson were kicked off the team in February after a pattern of conduct detrimental to the team. Willard also had trouble reining in senior Jeff Robinson’s three-point shooting. Robinson, a holdover from the Gonzalez era and a career 25 percent three-point shooter, raised his three-point attempts to 113 after having attempted a total of 52 over his entire collegiate career. Robinson’s me-first approach, an attempt at impressing pro scouts, amazingly did not draw any consequences from Willard. Two more players transferred out of the program.
  • 2011-12: The Pirates started the season 15-2 (4-1 Big East) only to lose their next six games and three of their final four regular season games. This team’s subsequent NIT bid is the only postseason invitation to date in the Kevin Willard era. Personal demons got the better of several players in the locker room that season. Forward Herb Pope mysteriously missed a blowout loss at Connecticut due to what the school claimed was “bruised ribs.” Another player transferred out of the program.
  • 2012-13: Team chemistry issues and the failure to recruit an adequate replacement for point guard Jordan Theodore doomed the Pirates to a 3-15 Big East campaign, the program’s worst mark since 1983-84. Starting guard Aaron Cosby suddenly left the team before a game at Pittsburgh for “personal reasons,” only to return in time for the next game. Cosby would eventually transfer to Illinois after the season, one of three more players to leave the program via transfer.
  • 2013-14: More chemistry issues and a 6-12 Big East mark led to growing frustration with Willard. At times, Willard sparred publicly with senior guard Brian Oliver, culminating in his suspension along with fellow senior Eugene Teague on February 13. Ten days later, Gibbs was suspended for the game at Creighton. Willard’s reasoning was that Gibbs was not ready to practice and did not have a great attitude about it. One more player would transfer out of the program during this season and another, Tom Maayan, was forced to return to Israel to fulfill a military obligation. After the season, Patrik Auda decided not to return to the program for his postgraduate season, opting to instead play professional basketball in Europe.

Now in Willard’s fifth season, chemistry problems persist. After a recent home loss to Georgetown, starting sophomore guard Jaren Sina decided to immediately leave the team and explore transfer options. The fact that a starting guard who was receiving 32 minutes per game of playing time would leave the program due to what was reported as an “untenable” locker room situation is a huge red flag. Things were apparently so bad within the team that Sina did not feel compelled to wait until the end of the year before making his decision to abandon ship. While there are a lot of unsubstantiated rumors about why such a high level of dysfunction exists, the main problem appears to emanate from the discord between the upperclassmen and Willard’s talented freshmen class. With two big-time scorers on the team in Gibbs and freshman Isaiah Whitehead, it appears they are having a hard time coexisting. In that recent loss to the Hoyas, Gibbs and Whitehead nearly exploded into a full-blown argument during a second half timeout. Considering the fact that Gibbs was reportedly Sina’s best friend on the team, you can see where this is going. Were the freshmen upset that Sina, a decent shooter and good floor general but not a dynamic athlete or scorer, was getting too many minutes at their expense? Quite possibly. Did Willard promise Sina more playing time in order to keep him in the program? Also possible.

Seton Hall's Season is Worth Hanging Heads Over (USA Today Images)

The Disappointment of Seton Hall’s Season is Worth Hanging Heads Over (USA Today Images)

The problems at Seton Hall this season are eerily similar to those faced by the program back in the 2000-01 season. Tommy Amaker was the head coach then and had brought in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, just like Willard did this year. Amaker’s combustible mix of established veterans and talented freshmen quickly blew up in his face that year, also (coincidentally) after a loss to Georgetown. Freshman Eddie Griffin punched junior Ty Shine in the locker room afterward, and that was all she wrote. No physical violence has taken place this time around, but the deep-seated problems came to a head in similar ways through a failure of leadership. Back then, Amaker reportedly promised his freshmen starting jobs at the expense of the veterans. This time around, Willard could not manage the needs of his two “alpha dogs” in Gibbs and Whitehead, while showing perhaps too much favoritism toward Sina, a player who had regressed in his sophomore season. While Willard has seemingly learned nothing from his previous troubles managing the program’s locker room over the previous four seasons, one of his assistants, Fred Hill, was also an assistant under Amaker during that ill-fated season 14 years ago. Maybe Hill is part of the problem given that he is the constant within the program, but we cannot know that for sure. Even so, you would think that Willard would have leaned on him for some lessons learned given the volatile mix of players and personalities on this team.

The bottom line is that this situation is beyond repair. With only four regular season games remaining, Seton Hall’s implosion is too big of a dumpster fire to contain. It is clear in his nearly five years at the helm of this ship that Willard is incapable of successfully running a high major college basketball program. His teams have underachieved on the court each and every year while simultaneously dealing with multiple personnel issues in the locker room. It is true that Willard’s tenure has also been beset by injuries to key players, and that is certainly a factor in the program’s underachievement. From his first year when Hazell went down with a broken wrist, to major injuries to Auda, Teague, Oliver, Brandon Mobley and finally Whitehead’s stress fracture, it has been very difficult for Willard to put a full team out on the floor. That said, leadership and roster management issues have overshadowed any injury problems. From bringing in multiple transfers to mask difficulties on the high school recruiting circuit to the desperate move of hiring assistant coaches related to freshman Angel Delgado as well as Whitehead in order to secure their services, it all seems like a patchwork operation instead of a healthy program with a concrete plan for growth and sustainability.

In 2013, Newark Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi got Willard to admit that the criticism he faced during his third season was “very well deserved.” Two years later, Politi is on the case again and bringing the heat. None of this is to say that Kevin Willard is not a good guy. But not all good guys are good leaders, and Willard has had nearly five years to prove himself as such. The results are in, and they are not good for either the coach or the program.  In times of adversity, great leaders acknowledge shortcomings and rally the troops. Willard has done neither. His program is spiraling out of control and his failure of leadership will be the primary reason for his demise at Seton Hall, whether at the end of this season or a year from now. Should he be lucky enough to earn a sixth year at the Hall, does anyone really believe he can turn it around in 2015-16? Everybody knows that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. With only one recruit signed and more possible transfers to come, the roster is not in good shape going forward. Why would a sixth year be any different when the program has been stuck in the mud for the preceding five seasons?

Brian Otskey (269 Posts)

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One response to “Seton Hall’s Problems Start at the Very Top”

  1. Brian from Newark says:

    Very good article. It should also be noted that under Willard, among other things: there has been no evidence of individual player development (e.g. Brandon Mobley still can’t use his left hand to shoot lay ups); basic offensive principles have never been institute (e.g. have a cutter flash to the middle of the court to beat the press); and in-game player (e.g. the rollercoaster minutes of Karlis and Manga this year) and time out management (e.g. how many TOs has Willard taken when the next dead ball would have been a TV TO? – answer, a lot.)has been baffling.

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