Saturday’s game against Kentucky contains something of a flashback quality for Seton Hall Coach Kevin Willard. Thirty years ago he was a freshman at Tates Creek High School as his father, Ralph, worked as an assistant coach in Rick Pitino’s debut season as UK coach. It was the 1989-90 season.
“Jeez, I remember running around Rupp Arena,” Willard said this week. “I remember being at the track at 6 in the morning and watching Richie Farmer run around.
“It was really a fun year because that team played so hard. Everybody knows how memorable they were.”
The joy of that season reached its zenith in a 100-95 victory over No. 9 LSU, a team led by Chris Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts.
“Loudest crowd I’ve ever been in,” Willard said. “I remember it so vividly. It was one of the coldest days in Kentucky history, too. Walking outside, people were partying in the streets in T-shirts like it wasn’t even cold outside.”
Willard, who moved to Bowling Green in 1990 when his father became Western Kentucky coach, is in his ninth season as Seton Hall coach. The Pirates’ 77-57 victory over New Hampshire on Tuesday marked his 155th victory. That moved him out of tie with Bill Raftery for the fourth-most victories for a Seton Hall coach. It was also his 200th overall victory as a coach, and the 1,500th victory for Seton Hall.
‘On a mission’
In search for zealous play, UK Coach John Calipari held up Reid Travis as an example for players to follow.
“He’s on a mission,” Calipari said. “How about if we had everybody on that same mission? Now, all of a sudden this thing gets a little crazy.”
Calipari reminded reporters that a lack of talent is not a problem.
“I just want people to respect that we have really good players who are not playing to a level they’re capable of playing,” he said. “But we’ve got really good players. Don’t think that we don’t. But if you don’t compete and if you don’t fight to win and fight for your space, you look like, you’re just OK.”
Travis said he played in Madison Square Garden during his freshman season for Stanford.
“When you’re walking through the halls, you can just feel it,” he said. “When you get in the building, there’s a different feeling about it. So I’m excited to get back there and just feel that feeling.”
EJ Montgomery played in MSG during high school.
“All the greats played on that court,” he said. “It’s a special place.”
Willard said he likes his team to play at least one game in Madison Square Garden each season because the Big East holds its postseason tournament there.
UK continues to have more turnovers (122) than assists (113). Calipari said he wanted to solidify his team’s defense before turning his attention to turnovers.
One reason for the turnovers: high school star players do not pass, he said.
“I’ve got a couple guys in there, they’re not the worst passers I’ve ever coached,” Calipari said, “but they’re in the conversation.”
Previously, Calipari playfully dubbed Tyler Herro the worst passer he’d coached. Herro smiled and said he was UK’s best passer this season.
“Have you seen some of the passes he’s thrown?” Calipari said to reporters. “Did you debate with him?”
Calipari spoke of Seton Hall as “an opponent that’s going to bring it, has a swagger and an attitude about themselves. We need to be playing teams like this.”
Seton Hall (5-3) lost four starters from last season’s team. Willard had the task of replacing players who had combined to score 5,531 points and be part of 84 victories.
At mid-week, Seton Hall guard Myles Powell ranked 20th nationally with a scoring average of 22.4 points.
Another Seton Hall player, Sandro Mamukelashvili, is coming off his first career double-double: 14 points and 11 rebounds against New Hampshire on Tuesday. His busy stat line included three assists, two blocks and two steals.
Mamukelashvili is a native of Georgia, not the U.S. state but the country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. He shares a hometown with Joseph Stalin: Tbilisi, Georgia.
Willard went to Georgia last summer to watch Mamukelashvili play for his national team.
“Gorgeous country with unbelievable food,” Willard said. “I think I gained 10 pounds in the four days I was there.”
Gus Johnson, Jim Jackson and sideline reporter Andy Katz will call the game for Fox.