Terps Hoops Coach Kevin Willard Says He’s Learned What Teams Need In NCAA Tournament

New Maryland head coach Kevin Willard says he learned from Seton Hall’s early exits in the NCAA Tournament, pointing out two things in particular that he believes teams must have to succeed in the Big Dance.

Willard was the head man in South Orange, N.J., from 2010-2022, earning five trips to the NCAA Tournament in his final seven years. (It would have been six trips if not for COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of the 2020 tournament.) However, the Pirates went 1-5 in tournament games during that time, with the following results:

2016: Lost to No. 11 seed Gonzaga, 68-52, in the first round
2017: Lost to No. 8 seed Arkansas, 77-71, in the first round
2018: Defeated No. 9 seed NC State, 94-83, in the first round then lost to No. 1 seed Kansas, 83-79, in the second round
2019: Lost to No. 7 seed Wofford, 84-68, in the first round
2022: Lost to No. 9 seed TCU, 69-42, in the first round

Willard is quick to take responsibility for Seton Hall’s recent postseason track record.

“One of my issues was I didn’t do a good enough job building a roster that when we got into the NCAA Tournament that we could be ready to play in it,” Willard said on Glenn Clark Radio March 23.

After having experienced those setbacks, Willard says teams must have a “bucket-getter” they can turn to for a basket at any time and must also have a deep roster so they can be fresh for the NCAA Tournament, even after the grind of conference play.

Willard pointed to Sweet 16 participants Villanova, Providence, Michigan and Purdue fitting that description.

“Those are teams that are deep, but they also have guys that can get them a bucket at any time,” Willard said. “I think the biggest thing as a coach is you have to learn from your failures. What I’ve learned over the last three or four years is the fact that you’ve got to have someone who can get you a bucket at the end of the game because it’s hard to score in the NCAA Tournament. You’re going to play against a very good coach, a very good defensive team. Make sure that you have a guy you can give the ball to at some point that can get you a bucket.”

Willard was confident he had a team that could make a run in 2019-20, when Seton Hall finished 21-9 overall and won the Big East regular-season championship at 13-5. The Pirates had Myles Powell, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound senior guard who averaged 21.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists that season. They also had 10 regulars averaging double-digit minutes. Willard thought they would earn a No. 2 seed in the tournament.

But much like Mark Turgeon, Willard’s predecessor at Maryland, perhaps his best hope for a deep run was dashed due to COVID-19. As such, his best postseason accomplishment at Seton Hall remained winning the Big East tournament in 2016, no small feat. The Pirates defeated Xavier, 87-83, in the semifinals and Villanova, 69-67, in the final. Xavier went on to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Villanova won it all.

That Seton Hall team was led by Isaiah Whitehead, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound sophomore guard who averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game. Willard ran his offense through Whitehead, leaning heavily on the pick-and-roll game.

“What I did is I evolved my offense to give him the best opportunities to not only score but I gave him opportunities to create offense for the other four sophomores that we started,” Willard said. “We started five sophomores that year and ended up winning the Big East tournament. I thought we got a little bit of a bad seed in the NCAA Tournament getting sent out West [to Denver against Gonzaga].”

Willard also touched on a few other topics …

On the influence of his father Ralph, also a longtime coach:

“People always say, ‘What’s the hardest part of your job?’ And I say, ‘Being a father.’ This job demands so much of you, but you cannot forget about raising your kids or being a good husband. I think my father was a phenomenal coach, he ran great programs, but he was a phenomenal dad. He never stopped being a father. He never stopped being there. Every day I wake up I always say to myself, ‘Let’s go outwork everybody.’ And then all the sudden before I walk out the door it’s, ‘You have to be a father.’ That’s something that I think about every day and it’s something that he taught me and I learned from him.”

On not becoming overly reliant on the transfer portal:

“I think you have to be really careful with the portal. I think it can definitely help you in a quick year. If you’re going to try to develop a culture and you’re going to try to develop consistency where year in, year out you’re going to have teams that can compete [at] a high level, you have to do that by recruiting really high-level kids. We brought in four kids from the portal to help us get to the tournament that were tremendous [this year at Seton Hall], but I also had nine kids in the program that had been with me for four or five years. So when [the transfers] came into the program, the kids taught the culture, the kids taught the work ethic because they’ve been taught that by the seniors before them.”

On securing a commitment in 2012 from Baltimore hoops legend Aquille Carr, who opted to play professionally instead of going to college:

“I first watched him when he was a junior in a packed high school gym. I was just mesmerized, what he could do with the basketball. He had so much finesse and so much confidence. I just loved the way he played. At the time when I was at Seton Hall, I was looking for someone to energize [the program] and be someone that people wanted to come in and watch. I had an assistant named Chris Pompey who was from the Baltimore-D.C. area. He got me down there. I just loved the way Aquille played.”

For more from Willard, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland

Luke Jackson

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