From the day that Kevin Willard was hired as head coach of Seton Hall in late March of 2010, he has been compared to Seton Hall's last ex-coach, the much-maligned Bobby Gonzalez.
Whether the side-by-side comparisons had been warranted matters not, nearly every new head coach is compared to the head man that they have replaced, no matter how unique the situation. Willard, similar to Gonzalez (or any head coach) for his first two seasons in charge, was given plenty of slack due to "the situation that he inherited" as so many people have phrased it before me. Burnt bridges on the recruiting trails, internal administrative issues at Seton Hall, a tarnished image of the University all acted as tariffs to imported criticism.
Last season, Kevin Willard's third in South Orange, was insisted by some to be looked at through the perspective that only Fuquan Edwin remained from the Gonzalez era, and even Edwin never suited up for the former coach. In short, Willard was now working with "his recruits." At the same time, the season was veiled with the premonition that it would be a rebuilding year due to the very same reason: a turnover transition from the prior regime.
This season brought along modified expectations regarding ex-Gonzo talent (Edwin) and roster turnover -- only Aaron Cosby, Kevin Johnson, and Kyle Smyth were lost in the off-season. 2013-14 also attracted the pre-packaged "recruiting cycle" argument that says a four year window is accurate for judging a coach's success due to fulfilling the first cycle of a coach bringing in their own players (Aaron Geramipoor, Patrik Auda if he hadn't been red shirted, and Fuquan Edwin). But Kevin Willard put any potential unrest to bed by locking up a top-15 recruiting class that extends his future through 2014-15 at the very least.
Now, finally, Kevin Willard and Bobby Gonzalez can be compared as equally as possible since both have completed four seasons at Seton Hall. The following is an effort at laying all of the evidence out for a verdict, if there is one, to be reached.
I encourage corrections/additions, I'm sure I missed something or made a mistake or two.
KenPom comparisons, Bobby Gonzalez is the first chart (open in a new tab):
2006-07 Record: 13-16 (4-12, N/A)
Non-conf. SOS: 269th
Big wins: None
Bad losses: FDU (263), Rutgers (209)
Players inherited: Brian Laing, Jamar Nutter, John Garcia, Paul Gause
Recruited players: Eugene Harvey (2006)
Comments: Gonzo's first season gets a pass due to the new head coach having limited resources following the departures of center Kelly Whitney and lead guard Donald Copeland, Seton Hall's two best players from their 2006 NCAA tournament team.
Gonzo had a capable-but-not-great lineup that included freshman talent Eugene Harvey seeing major minutes at point guard (Paul Gause too), a junior Jamar Nutter at the two, a developing junior Brian Laing at the three, but a mostly barren frontcourt.
2007-08 Record: 17-15, (7-11, 0-1)
Non-conf. SOS: 298th SOS
Big wins: Louisville (6)
Bad losses: Rutgers (174), @ St. John's (148)
Recruited players: Jeremy Hazell
Comments: Gonzalez's second season at Seton Hall saw the team move to Prudential Center in Newark, bringing excitement along with it. Gonzo relied more on the now-capable Brian Laing and shot-happy freshman Jeremy Hazell, but his team was still absent of frontcourt talent and had to rely on injury-hobbled sophomore John Garcia and foul machines Mike Davis and Augustine Okosun in the paint. The team gained traction midway through the Big East season but two losing streaks hobbled their post-season aspirations.
2008-09 Record: 17-15 (7-11, 1-1)
Non-conf. SOS: 260th
Big wins: neutral USC (24), Georgetown (34), Virginia Tech (66)
Bad losses: @ James Madison (122), IUPUI (178)
Recruited players: Jordan Theodore, Robert Mitchell (transfer)
Comments: Yet another Gonzalez team that failed to hold advantages in the paint. John Garcia put together a few nice performances, but his supporting cast was nonexistent and Gonzo had to resort to his infamous 6-6 Robert "Stix" Mitchell at the center position lineups on occasion.
Gonzalez really showed his ability to coach his teams up by winning improbable games in Cancun against USC and Virginia Tech while battling to a loss against a tough (No. 2 in KenPom) Memphis team. Seton Hall had about seven scholarship players at their disposal in Cancun and this player depth issue continued throughout the season with walkon forward Matt Cajuste being required in 17 games. Sophomore Jeremy Hazell was already developing into a go-to-guy while freshman Jordan Theodore was getting about ⅓ of the time at point guard along with Harvey.
Seton Hall began the Big East season 0-6 (two in OT) before registering their last 4+ game win streak against weak Rutgers (x2), DePaul, and St. John's teams. Gonzalez's team then lost 5 of their last 7 in Big East play to extinguish their post-season hopes.
2009-10 Record: 19-13 (9-9, 1-1), 0-1 NIT
Non-conf. SOS: 336th
Big wins: @ Cornell (42), Pittsburgh (25), Notre Dame (31)
Bad losses: None
Recruited players: Ferrakohn Hall, Keon Lawrence (transfer), Jamel Jackson (transfer), Herb Pope (transfer), Jeff Robinson (transfer)
Comments: Stockpiled with newly acquired talent, Bobby Gonzalez went all out in his last season via transfers. Seton Hall started 9-1 against a weak non-conference, winning at Cornell and losing to Temple at home on the first night of eligibility for several transfers. Seton Hall then lost 4 straight games against stiff opposition including an overtime loss to West Virginia on CBS (Jeremy Hazell's ridiculous one-man late comeback in regulation), a seven-point loss to Syracuse at home that could have went either way, and an overtime loss to Virginia Tech.
During their Big East slate, Gonzo's team was strong at home (6-3) but weak on the road (3-6). Sitting at 12-6 (3-4) after impressive back-to-back wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh, Seton Hall inexcusably lost at South Florida in overtime. After the conference play dust settled, the Pirates did not beat enough highly-rated opponents and suffered from a poor non-conference schedule and therefore just missed the NCAA tournament after losing to Notre Dame in the second round of the Big East Tournament.
We all know how that off-season panned out before, during, and after a blowout loss to Texas Tech in an empty Prudential Center.
Gonzalez overall: 66-59, (27-43), 2-3, 0-1 (1 NIT)
Bobby Gonzalez was billed as a big-time recruiter but failed to deliver in that respect. His first three team's were plagued from lack of depth, specifically in the front court, but it's hard to pin the blame on anyone but Gonzalez. He failed to bring in any significant forward recruits until Ferro Hall and Herb Pope (transfer) prior to his final season. Gonzo had no forwards committed in the 2009 class (Fuquan Edwin) that he would have been able to use for a hypothetical fifth season (Willard's first).
With that being said, Gonzo's teams were frustrating in that they scrapped in every game (Cancun being the epitome of this) and therefore pulled off some nice upsets. In the same way that Bobby's uptempo gameplans brought unexpected results, they also featured strings of crippling losing streaks and playing down to opponents.
For me, Gonzo would have been quite successful if he was as good of a recruiter as he was hyped up to be. He was finally able to show some results in his final season with talent at his disposal, but the path to get there was not the most fruitful. Seton Hall did not establish local recruiting ties and nearly all of Gonzo's talent was by way of transfer (Harvey, Theodore main exceptions to both). Jeremy Hazell was obviously a diamond in the rough find for Gonzalez, probably the only one in a long line of risky recruitments that panned out (DeAndre Kane, Mike Glover, etc.). Hazell did not receive any high-major offers outside of Seton Hall and therefore committed to Oral Roberts before prepping and then changing his collegiate course.
Gonzalez' off-court track record, but mostly what transpired at the end of his last season are, to put it briefly, what made his firing justified and inevitable.
2010-11 Record: 13-18 (7-11, 0-1)
Non-conf. SOS: 81st
Big wins: neutral Alabama (47), @ Syracuse (15), St. John's (37), Marquette (30)
Bad losses: None
Players inherited: Herb Pope, Jeremy Hazell, Jordan Theodore, Jeff Robinson, Fuquan Edwin, Keon Lawrence
Recruited players: Patrik Auda, Eniel Polynice (transfer)
Comments: New coach Kevin Willard swayed Jordan Theodore from transferring, retained lone 2009 recruit Fuquan Edwin, and added grad-transfer Eniel Polynice and freshman Patrik Auda in the summer leading up to his first season. Willard inherited a stable of players that did not include since departed Robert Mitchell, John Garcia, and Eugene Harvey.
Willard's team finished the toughest non-conference slate in the last decade with a 6-6 record after Jeremy Hazell broke his wrist in the Paradise Jam in what would be the first big win of Willard's tenure at Seton Hall, a 83-78 shootout win over Alabama. Hazell's injury would be the "free pass" that most coaches receive during their first season.
The loss of Seton Hall's star player crippled the offense until Hazell's return mid-January and more or less ended the Pirates' season in November. The Hall finished with a respectable 7-11 Big East record including a blowout of Syracuse in the Carrier Dome and a definitive win over Marquette on senior night before bowing out to Rutgers in a matinee thriller at MSG.
It's notable that Willard had to deal with out of line transfers Jamel Jackson and Keon Lawrence, eventually kicking them off the team prior to a game at Rutgers in February that Seton Hall won.
2011-12 Record: 21-13 (8-10, 1-1); 1-1 NIT
Non-conf. SOS: 254th
Big wins: neutral VCU (38), neutral Saint Joes (67), @ Dayton (71), UConn (41), Georgetown (16)
Bad losses: Rutgers (114), @ DePaul (142)
Recruited players: Aaron Cosby
Comments: There were relatively high expectations of Willard in his second season as the cupboard was bare going forward (his recruiting revolved around the Canarias Basketball Academy and lesser recruited players in the Bobby Gonzalez wake) since Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope were seniors.
Willard's team lived up to the hype rattling off several quality non-conference wins that culminated in a 15-2 (4-1) record that saw Seton Hall sniff the top-25 polls in early January before a devastating loss at South Florida that sparked a 6-game losing streak. However, Willard's team notched important wins over Pittsburgh and Georgetown and sat at 19-9 (8-8) before suffering consecutive losses to Rutgers and DePaul at the end of the season that violently placed them on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble.
Pope and Theodore played their last games in the NIT in an exciting win over Stony Brook at Walsh Gym and a loss to UMass in the second round. To compare, this NIT appearance was slightly more productive on several fronts than Gonzalez's disaster against Texas Tech.
Overall, Willard's second season delivered as Seton Hall was expected to be around the bubble or in the NCAA tournament, but the head coach was ultimately blamed for not closing the deal late in the season.
2012-13 Record: 15-18 (3-15, 1-1)
Non-conf. SOS: 318th
Big wins: Villanova (46)
Bad losses: None
Recruited players: Brian Oliver (transfer), Gene Teague (transfer)
Comments: Going into last season, expectations were much lower with the departures of Theodore and Pope, and therefore Willard's soft non-conference schedule produced an 11-2 record but little substance. Willard supplemented his poor recruiting in Gonzalez fashion by bringing in transfers Gene Teague, Brian Oliver, and his second grad transfer, Kyle Smyth.
Seton Hall won their first Big East game but then dropped their next three by double digits and by then were well on their way to an abysmal 3-15 league showing. While an exceptionally poor output, Willard's third season had low expectations and was seen as a transitional season from most of Gonzalez's players to Willard's own recruits.
2013-14 Record: 17-17 (6-12, 2-1)
Non-conf. SOS: 344th
Big wins: @ PC (46), neutral Villanova (7)
Bad losses: FDU (279), SPC (242), @ DePaul (191)
Recruited players: Jaren Sina, Sterling Gibbs (transfer), 2014 class
Comments: A disappointing fourth season that would usually warrant hot seat discussions was grounded when Kevin Willard wrapped up a top-15 recruiting class during the late summer and added blooming senior wing Desi Rodriguez in December. Detrimental to the team's ability but perhaps in aid of Willard's job, Seton Hall suffered through several severe and some nearly critical injuries throughout the 2013-14 season (Auda's foot, Edwin's ankle, Geramipoor's ankle, Gibbs' knee, Teague's concussion, Edwin's thumb) and also lost backup point guard Tom Maayan to military duty in Israel.
Willard's fourth team struggled through a weak non-conference and failed to register a winning streak in the first year of the ‘new' Big East until the conference tournament. As I wrote last week, Sterling Gibbs' game-winner and Seton Hall's notable showing at Madison Square Garden did a lot to erase an overall disappointing season from many people's minds.
It's worthy to add the off-court happenings during Willard's fourth season. Junior college transfer Hakeem Harris left the team after playing in just three games in November while quite a few players were suspended over the course of the season: Fuquan Edwin (exhibition), Brian Oliver (Xavier, St. John's), Gene Teague (St. John's), and Sterling Gibbs (@ Creighton).
The pinnacle of Willard's crackdown on what was described as poor attitude in practice came when Oliver and Teague were left on campus for an important game against St. John's amidst a snowstorm. Seton Hall lost that game by a single point and played well outside of two games (@ DePaul, @ Butler) down the stretch after the climactic final suspensions. The change since the flurry of suspensions begs the question if Willard has instilled a new culture for the program.
Willard overall: 66-64 (24-48), 4-4, 1-1 (1 NIT)
Bobby Gonzalez has a better W/L record than Kevin Willard while also playing in a stronger Big East. That said, Willard's record would be improved if not for Jeremy Hazell's injury, among others.
More important than wins and losses is what Willard has built compared to Gonzalez. The end of Gonzo's four seasons felt kind of bare and low potential for the near future despite having some talented players. Willard has slightly less wins to show but seems to have built a recruiting-happy coaching staff that has brought local recruiting ties with high potential in the near future.
Kevin Willard's fifth season will be higher stakes and have more potential than Gonzalez's fifth (2010-11) ever could have had.
Who do you think is the better coach? Comments on either four year span? Corrections?