JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Perhaps the best, most spot-on and complimentary description of Kevin Willard came from someone who, when asked Wednesday about the Seton Hall coach, said, “I don’t know Kevin at all.’’
But this is what Mike Young, the coach of No. 7 seed Wofford, which plays No. 10 seed Seton Hall in the NCAA Tournament opening round Thursday night at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, does know about Willard from watching tape of his Seton Hall team:
“He makes you uncomfortable,’’ Young said. “And I admire that.’’
If there’s a coach in major college basketball who’s done a better job than Willard has this season, leading 20-13 Seton Hall to a school-record-tying fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, you don’t need more than half of a bar napkin to scribble down the list of names.
Willard, in his ninth season at Seton Hall, lost four of his five starters from last year’s team, including Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, all of whom are now playing as professionals.
“We’re not supposed to be here,’’ Willard told The Post Wednesday.
“For us to lose so much last year, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year,’’ Myles Powell, the Pirates’ only returning starter from last year, said.
Rebuilding turned into something much more ambitious thanks in large part to Willard’s inherent toughness, which has permeated his roster and turned the Pirates into one of the toughest outs in the NCAA Tournament.
A lot of that toughness came from Willard’s choice to play a killer non-conference schedule — one that even his father, venerable former collegiate coach Ralph Willard, questioned at the start of the season.
“When I saw the schedule they put together, I said to Kevin, ‘How could you put this schedule together this year?’ ’’ Ralph Willard told The Post. “I said, ‘It’s going to be so difficult on these kids. Half of these kids haven’t been in a significant college game before at this level.’
“I was not expecting this [NCAA Tournament berth]. I was hoping that he’d keep building on the culture he created and get ready for the following year, and let these kids get experience. I don’t know how he did it with the lack of experience these kids had.’’
Kevin Willard vividly recalled that conversation with his father.
“I think he said, ‘You’re effing crazy,’ ’’ Willard said. “He said, ‘You’re never going to get to 20 wins, and if you don’t get to 20 wins it’s a terrible year.’ I said, ‘Dad, it’s going to be tough, but I think this group has something in it that you don’t see yet. The more you’re around them the more you’ll see what I see.’ ’’
Powell called Willard “a fighter,’’ and added, “He showed that with our non-conference schedule. Everyone was looking at our schedule and said, ‘These kids are not ready to play against those teams.’ But he threw us into the fire.’’
They responded with wins over Kentucky, which Seton Hall likely would play if it advances past Wofford, and Maryland as well as a close loss to Louisville.
“Coach Willard has done a great job with this program and a great job with us,’’ Powell said. “Mostly, he’s made us believe in ourselves.’’
What former Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo has seen is not how good this team is, but how good the program is that Willard has built.
Carlesimo put Seton Hall on the college basketball map. When he left Seton Hall in 1994, the program suffered, lost its identity. The coaching bridge leading from Carlesimo’s exit to Willard’s arrival in 2010 was a rickety one, with dodgy results coming from the likes of George Blaney, Tommy Amaker, Louis Orr and Bobby Gonzalez. Those four coaches produced three NCAA Tournament appearances in 16 years.
Willard then took until his sixth season (same as Carlesimo) to get to the NCAAs and he’s now been four consecutive years.
“Seton Hall’s not a good team, it’s a good program,’’ Carlesimo said by phone. “That’s when you’re good — when kids come and go and graduate and move on and you’re still good. That’s what he’s got — a good program. That’s strictly Kevin and his staff.
“He had a couple years early on where people didn’t realize how good he was, what a good hire that was. Now there’s an identity to the program. Kevin has established that. It’s hard to get to the [NCAA] tournament once. It’s really hard to get to the tournament four times in a row. And in this case, with a totally different team, a dramatically different team.’’