Head coach Kevin Willard of the Seton Hall Pirates looks on as he coaches against the Auburn Tigers at Prudential Center on December 2, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
On Wednesday, the Seton Hall University men's basketball program begin Big East Conference play at Syracuse University (7 p.m. on SNY). SB Nation New York's Jared Smith was able to interview Pirates second-year head coach Kevin Willard on the upcoming match-up.
For local college hoops fans who enjoyed last year's run of the St. John's University men's basketball program, and were a bit disappointed to see the Red Storm struggle through their non-conference schedule with a 6-5 record... well, no worries. There is a new tri-state school that is looking to make headlines this season in the Big East Conference -- Seton Hall University.
As of Wednesday, which will be when the Pirates (11-1) begin league play at No. 1-ranked Syracuse University (7 p.m. on SNY), Seton Hall has been the surprise of the league and will be looking to do what it did last season around this time -- defeat the Orange at the Carrier Dome.
"It's a little bit of a surprise," said Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard Tuesday during the team's bus trip to Syracuse. "I thought the two seniors Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore were going to have a great year, but I didn't know how the rest of the guys would really compliment them and how they would adjust. The best surprise of all is really our young guys have really understood their roles and complimented both Herb and Jordan really well."
Last season, the first year under Willard, Seton Hall struggled through the non-conference portion of its schedule going 6-6. The Pirates finished the year with just a 7-11 conference record and a heartbreaking 76-60 loss to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the first round of the Big East Tournament.
However, this season something is different as Seton Hall has busted out to its best start since the 1992-93 season, which featured the Pirates starting 14-1 and eventually winning the Big East Championship.
"We try to give them the best atmosphere and the best situation to succeed," said Willard when asked about his personal coaching tactics, "and that's really our whole philosophy on basketball is about. It's giving the guys the best opportunity on and off the court to succeed."
One player who has really taken off is senior forward Pope, who enters Wednesday's match-up with the league's second-best scoring (20.3 point per game) and rebound (14.1 rebounds per game) average and -- as showcased in this Jeff Goodman feature, Dec. 22 -- loving his coach's style. However, Willard isn't willing to take all the credit.
"The biggest difference is he's healthy," said Willard about Pope, "He was coming off that heart aliment that we discovered in Apirl and he couldn't play basketball for six months, but now he has had a season under his belt to get healthy and become the basketball player we all thought he could become."
On Wednesday, Willard and Pope will be facing an Orange squad that will be looking to avenge last season's home loss and ready to do what they've done to a lot of other school's that have visited the Carrier Dome this season -- run them out of the building.
"I think with this year's team, especially as deep as they are, as good as they are, I think by far they're the best college basketball team in the country," said Willard.
"We can't compare depth wise. What we have to try to do is get our guys breaks and keep them as fresh as possible on the court. We have to make sure we play at our tempo and take advantage of our opportunities."
As for the Pirates plan of attack against the always troublesome 2-3 zone defense?
"You can't go in there thinking you're going to shoot layups all day. Their length and their experience. You still need to work inside and out against the (2-3) zone. You still have to attack.
"They play unselfish, they play together and they're a fun basketball team to watch. I really don't think the 'Cuse are going to catch anybody at the wrong time all year because they're such a good basketball team."
SB Nation New York will be blogging live from press row at the Carrier Dome Wednesday night as the Syracuse Orange take on Big East rival the Seton Hall Pirates Be sure to check back for in-game updates and postgame material. Visit SB Nation's Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician for more on Syracuse and South Orange Juice for everything Seton Hall. Follow us along on Twitter at SBNationNY or JaredSmithCNY.