After guiding his talented group of student-athletes to numerous milestones no Seton Hall men's basketball team has reached in over a decade, head coach Kevin Willard was selected by his coaching peers as the 2016 BIG EAST Co-Coach of the Year, the conference office announced Wednesday at its annual awards press conference at Madison Square Garden. Willard shares the honor with regular season champion Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
This is the fourth BIG EAST Coach of the Year selection in Seton Hall history, as Willard joins two-time winner P.J. Carlesimo (1988 & 1989) and 2003 recipient Louis Orr as recipients. This is the second time in BIG EAST history that two coaches have shared the honor; Jim Calhoun and Jim O'Brien were Co-Coaches of the Year in 1996.
Willard, in his sixth season in South Orange, has been the architect of an incredible season at The Hall, as the Pirates have pushed their way into top half of the BIG EAST standings after the coaches picked them to finish seventh during the preseason. The 22 wins the team has racked up is the most regular season victories by a Seton Hall team since the 1992-93 pulled in 24 wins prior to the start of postseason. The 22 wins also represent the most victories including postseason since the 1999-2000 team went to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and finished with 22 triumphs.
In BIG EAST play, this ranks as one of the best seasons in program history as the Pirates won 12 conference games, most since winning 14 in 1992-93, including six road conference games, which set a new program record. The 1988-89, 1991-92, 1992-93 and 1999-2000 teams all had five road wins. The team's third-place finish is also the highest since tying for third in 2002-03. Signature conference wins included a huge road victory at then-No. 12 Providence on Jan. 16 and an upset of then-No. 5 Xavier at a sold-out Prudential Center on Feb. 28.
The results of a 22-8 regular season have shone favorably on Willard's Pirates in the ratings as The Hall currently boasts an RPI of 34, a KenPom rating of 30, an ESPN BPI of 34 and are receiving votes in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls. With four wins over top 50 RPI teams and zero losses to teams outside the RPI top 100, Willard's squad has built a favorable resume for NCAA Tournament selection.
The quality resume was built on defense as the Pirates led the BIG EAST in field goal percentage defense during conference games, limiting opponents to 40.1 percent from the field. The Hall also was tops in conference games in rebounding (40.2/gm) and offensive rebounding percentage (33.9 percent) and was second in three-point defense (31.1 percent) and rebounding margin (+3.7). Overall on the year, the Pirates held opponents under 70 points in 18 of 30 games and went 18-0 in those contests. They held teams under 40 percent shooting 16 times, going 15-1.
The commitment to defense is an example of the student-athlete development Willard and his staff have worked on in the past year, turning the Pirates into an elite team. This is particularly the case with Willard's stud group of sophomores who took a major leap from their rookie years:
- Isaiah Whitehead (Brooklyn, N.Y.), hampered by injuries during his freshman campaign, blossomed into one of the top collegiate basketball players in the country, earning unanimous first-team All-BIG EAST honors with an average of 17.9 points, 4.9 assists and 1.5 blocks. He improved those averages to 22.1 points, 5.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in the final 11 games of the regular season, during which the Pirates were 9-2.
- Khadeen Carrington (Brooklyn, N.Y.) improved his overall and three-point shooting, finished 13th in the BIG EAST and scoring and was a model of consistency by scoring in double figures in 25 of 30 games.
- Desi Rodriguez (Bronx, N.Y.) became an all-around threat after the development of his jumper, which helped more than double his scoring output from last season, going from 5.6 to 12.8 points per game. He is currently the only BIG EAST player to have shooting percentages of at least 50 percent overall and 35 percent from three.
- Ismael Sanogo (Newark, N.J.) went from playing just five minutes a game as a freshman to becoming one of the best defenders in the conference, as he is the only player in the BIG EAST to rank in the top 12 in rebounding (7th - 7.1 RPG) steals (8th - 1.4 SPG) and blocks (11th - 1.2 BPG).
- Angel Delgado (Bajos De Haina, Dominican Republic), who was named All-BIG EAST honorable mention, maintained his reputation as one of the best rebounders in the conference, finishing second in the league, while also improving his field goal and free throw shooting percentages.
Willard and his Pirates now turn their attention to the 2016 BIG EAST Tournament presented by the Jeep brand, looking to win the championship for the first time since 1993. The Hall enters the tournament as the No. 3 seed and will face No. 6 Creighton Thursday at Madison Square Garden at 9:30 p.m. Gus Johnson, Bill Raftery and Molly McGrath will have the national television call on FS1, and Gary Cohen and Dave Popkin will have the radio call on AM970 The Answer, simulcast on the Pirate Sports Network and Seton Hall Gameday Live app.
For tickets to the BIG EAST Tournament, visit Ticketmaster.com/BIGEAST.