The light at the end of the tunnel that Kevin Willard now sees is not a headlight for some old Big East basketball juggernaut barreling toward his Seton Hall team.
Now in his fourth season as the Pirates' coach, Willard is convinced he's seeing progress from a program trying to regain the national relevance it held a couple of decades ago.
Much of Willard's optimism is tied to the potential top 10 recruiting class he signed last fall. Couple that with some improvement he's seen this season, and Willard is convinced that better days are ahead for his program.
“The only frustration I've had this season has been our inability to keep our key guys on the court,” Willard said. “Because of the injuries and the other stuff, we've kind of had to piece this together at times.
“But I think we're headed in the right direction, and we can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Changes in the Big East are another reason Willard remains upbeat in spite of the Pirates' 5-10 record in league play. Seton Hall won 15 league games in his first two seasons in South Orange, N.J., before dipping to a 3-15 conference record last season.
In some ways, competing in the new Big East has been harder than the old league because of the double-round robin format now being used by the conference.
“In the old league, you might play South Florida at the start of one season and then not face them again until February of the next season,” Willard said. “That made it hard to know the teams you were competing against.
“The way it is now, everyone knows each other so well. That makes it harder because people are really preparing for you in this league.”
But Willard said the new league, even with the addition of a program such as Creighton's, isn't as challenging as when the old league included elite programs such as Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut and Pitt.
“That's what is a little easier about this,” Willard said. “There were times in the old league where you might find yourself playing a string of games against Syracuse, Louisville and Connecticut. That took a toll on you.
“That's not to say the games in this league are easy, but I don't know if we're forced to play the gamut of teams that we used to.”
The new Big East, which probably boasts better top-to-bottom depth than the old league, is ranked fourth in conference RPI heading into the stretch run of the regular season. To stay that high in future seasons, league coaches know they must continue to attract the same quality of athlete that was drawn to the old Big East.
The early returns — last fall's signings — appear encouraging. Big East teams signed a dozen players on ESPN's top 100 list. Twenty-one Big East signees are on Rivals.com's list of the top 150 prospects.
Creighton's recruits showed up in the rankings. Guard Ronnie Harrell of Denver East is No. 71 on the ESPN list, while forward Leon Gilmore III of Manvel, Texas, is ranked No. 121 by Rivals.com.
Creighton has at least one scholarship yet to fill this spring.
Seton Hall and Georgetown are in the running for top 10 recruiting rankings. The Hoyas signed three players ranked among the top 35 by ESPN — 6-foot-8 forward Isaac Copeland (26th), 6-8 forward Paul White (34th) and 6-5 swingman L.J. Peak (35th). In addition, 6-1 guard Tre Campbell is ranked 115th by Rivals.com.
Georgetown coach John Thompson III's recruiting success is understandable. The Hoyas have played in seven of the past eight NCAA tournaments, making the Final Four in 2007. They shared last year's Big East regular-season title, and were one of the teams in the new league capable of banging heads on a regular basis with Louisville, Syracuse and Connecticut.
Seton Hall's Willard had a much tougher row to hoe in landing his prized class, which includes 6-4 guard Isaiah Whitehead, considered by many the top shooting guard in this year's class. Whitehead, who attends the same Brooklyn high school that Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson did, is ranked 14th by both ESPN and Rivals.com.
Willard also signed 6-8 forward Angel Delgado (44th Rivals.com, 47th ESPN), 6-3 guard Khadeen Carrington (125th Rivals.com) and forward 6-7 Ismael Sanogo (not ranked).
“We feel we have a great class coming in,” Willard said. “What I really like about them is that they're all great people. We're losing four guys that have done a lot for our program, but we feel good about the guys we're bringing in.”