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Patience, perseverance finally paying off for Kevin Willard and Seton Hall

No major conference coach has dealt with more adversity in recent years than Kevin Willard has at Seton Hall, but after Sunday's win over Xavier, it looks like the perseverance of so many in South Orange is finally paying off.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It was a game you expected Kevin Willard's Seton Hall team to lose because it was the exact same game the college basketball world has watched Kevin Willard's Seton Hall teams lose for the last six years.

An electric environment, an elite opponent, and a Pirates team that needed to overcome a feeling that they had already missed a couple opportunities to secure a signature victory. All the vital elements were in place for the type of loss that has become the norm in South Orange the last few years. Only it didn't happen.

Seton Hall led No. 5 Xavier -- a team coming off its own signature victory of the season -- from start to finish on Sunday, leaving the Prudential Center with a 90-81 win that all but guaranteed the Pirates a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The victory also all but guaranteed Willard's team a third-place finish in the Big East, the team's first finish in the top half of the conference standings since he arrived.

The result was different because this Pirates team is different.

After replacing the legendary Jeff Ruland at Iona and taking the Gaels from two wins to 21 wins in just three seasons, expectations were understandably high when Willard arrived at Seton Hall in 2010. He was easily the youngest head coach in the Big East at just 35 years old, but people in the game's inner-circle who had spent time with Willard raved about his basketball mind. Some predicted he'd be directing NBA players in less than a decade.

Instead, Willard entered his sixth season at Seton Hall with an overall record of just 82-81. None of his Pirates teams had ever finished better than eighth in the Big East, and his only taste of the postseason remained a "run" to the second round of the NIT in 2012. Some Jersey natives had raised a fuss when Willard's contract was extended in Feb. 2013. Even more vocalized their concerns after reports of in-fighting turned a promising 2014-15 campaign into one where the Pirates dropped nine of their last 10 games.

The win-loss records, the "hot seat" talk and the lack of an NCAA Tournament bid only tell a quarter of the story of the Willard era to date, because no program has experienced a worse string of bad luck during the current decade than Seton Hall. The rap sheet is almost too long to keep track of.

The fun started in 2011 when freshman center Kevin Johnson was declared ineligible by the NCAA. In 2011-12, stars Patrik Auda and Brandon Mobley missed most of the season with injuries, while a number of other Pirates players missed stretches of time with various maladies. A season later, Willard had just three players at his disposal who didn't miss at least one game because of injury. A pair of high-profile recruits were then supposed to make all of this better, but Jerron Wilbut was arrested and charged with felony robbery after allegedly robbing a juvenile with a handgun, and Aquille Carr decided to spend his year after high school playing pro ball in Europe.

This leads us to last season, when both the perseverance of Willard and the patience of the Seton Hall fan base were expected to be rewarded. Instead, a 12-2 start which peaked with an overtime win over then-unbeaten Villanova ended with a total collapse, reports of team in-fighting and a pair of high-profile transfers.

The divide on the squad reportedly began and ended with star freshman Isaiah Whitehead and high-scoring junior guard Sterling Gibbs. The two nearly came to blows in the locker room following a February loss to Georgetown, an event which seemed to play a large part in the decision of forward Jaren Sina to transfer, an announcement the sophomore made just a day later.

"I tried my best," Sina said at the time. "I think I was a good teammate. I've always been positive. I've always worked hard. I always gave it 100 percent. It's not a good situation for me right now. At the end of the day, I think it's best for me and my family.

"I'm not going to talk about chemistry issues."

With the season obviously lost, Seton Hall went through the motions, said the right things publicly, lost all but one of their final 10 games, and spent yet another March watching the NCAA Tournament from the comfort of their living rooms. In May, Gibbs announced that he would play his final season of college ball for Connecticut. No one was surprised.

Putting the pieces back together after such a tumultuous stretch seemed like an impossible task for any head coach, but for Willard it was merely the latest in a long line of unforeseen problems that he'd been tasked with fixing. He had hired a new strength and conditioning coach in 2013 to help curb the injury plague, he had successfully pleaded with the school to improve the program's facilities, and he bounced back from the Wilbut/Carr fiasco by landing one of the nation's top recruiting classes in 2014.

In the wake of the fiasco that ended last season, Willard opted to stand by his talented freshman class and hope that they would morph into a group with both the ability and maturity to turn the program back into a Big East contender. Despite being picked to finish seventh in the league before the season, Willard appeared oddly calm and confident about his still-youthful team at the conference's media day back in October.

"I'm the most relaxed I've been because I've been able to yell every day," Willard said. "Last year, they were so young and we had so many new guys that I couldn't scream at them, I couldn't yell. Now if you ask them, it's great. Every play, it's like, blow the whistle, yell, scream, it's great."

Whitehead has been fantastic, averaging a team-best 16.9 points and 5.0 assists per game in a sophomore campaign that could very well end in first team All-Big East honors. His three classmates -- Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado -- are all scoring in double figures as well, and have generated some NBA buzz behind their own names.

Now, with everyone seeming to finally be on the same page, the final and most important pieces of the puzzle (on-court results) are being snapped into place.

Sunday's signature victory marked the first time that Seton Hall has knocked off a top-five opponent since 2004. Perhaps more importantly, it was the Pirates' eighth win in their last nine games, a trend that represents the total antithesis of what the program's fans have come to expect in recent years when the calendar inches toward March. It's also a trend that has to make athletic director Patrick Lyons as happy as anyone in New Jersey.

Lyons made the risky decision to give Willard a one-year reprieve for a number of reasons. First, he saw the promise of the talented rising sophomore class headlined by Whitehead. Second, he had seen no progress from the program's seemingly endless five-year cycle of hiring and firing head basketball coaches. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the end of the Bobby Gonzalez era had left Seton Hall stressing the importance of image rehabilitation and doing everything the right way when he hired Willard. With the coach going above and beyond to keep up his end of that bargain, what kind of an example would Lyons be setting if he gave him the boot for reasons that failed to extend beyond the basketball court?

Despite facing as much bad luck as any head coach in Division-I, Willard always managed to keep things together, even if he had to use duct tape. He's also accomplished that without relenting to the pressure of any of the many voices around him. Take, for example, the events of last spring.

In May, Seton Hall made national headlines when he alleged that he was fired by the university for a pro-LGBT post on Facebook. That same month, Willard brought in graduate transfer Derrick Gordon, the first openly gay player in NCAA men's basketball. Willard dismissed the enormity of the move at the time, saying simply that his team needed experience and a defensive-minded guard, a pair of attributes that Gordon could provide. Still, an expected firestorm followed the news, and the heat was felt most by the head coach whose seat was already a notch or two above warm.

On Sunday, Gordon was the lone Seton Hall player honored on senior day. He received a standing ovation from the home crowd and was mobbed by his teammates at mid-court.

It was the first victory in a day that wound up including Willard's biggest win to date as a head coach.

For the first time since 2006, Selection Sunday will be a day of "when and where" questions instead of talks of "if" for Seton Hall. For a head coach and a program that have been through as much doubt and controversy as any over the past decade, they'll surely enjoy the comfort that comes with that certainty.