As soon as reports surfaced that Seton Hall paved the way for a commitment from Rivals five-star guard Isaiah Whitehead on Thursday by agreeing to hire his high school coach next fall, backlash from fans and media quickly followed.
Some tore into Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard for a transparent act of desperation. Others skewered the NCAA for allowing adults to profit off kids in this manner.
Such criticism is completely fair, but it shouldn't obscure one other important fact: Willard was smart to do what he did.
Before Willard agreed to hire Lincoln High School coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton as an assistant, most recruiting analysts believed the highly touted Whitehead was going to choose St. John's over Seton Hall. That's an outcome Willard may not have felt he could afford since his impatient fan base was already angry about missing on top local recruits Kyle Anderson (UCLA) and Myles Mack (Rutgers) the past few years.
Even though Willard is widely respected as an excellent tactician, he was edging closer to the hot seat entering his fourth season at Seton Hall because he hasn't recruited sufficient talent to lead the Pirates to the upper echelon of the Big East. An injury-plagued Seton Hall team went 3-15 in the Big East last season, then lost second-leading scorer Aaron Cosby to a transfer and top recruits Aquille Carr and Jerron Wilbut to off-the-court issues.
Seton Hall would have to defy meager preseason expectations to enjoy a huge bounce-back 2013-14 campaign, so Willard had to know months ago that an uptick in recruiting was his best chance of proving he deserves more time to rebuild. He has achieved exactly that too, albeit with the help of some assistant coaching hires clearly made with certain key recruits in mind.
In April, Willard landed former Northwestern signee Jaren Sina just weeks after hiring the assistant coach who originally recruited the consensus top 100 guard to the Wildcats prior to Bill Carmody's firing. In August, Willard nabbed top 75 power forward Angel Delgado at the same time as word broke that Seton Hall was hiring his assistant coach with the Dominican National team.
The centerpiece of Willard's recruiting efforts though is Whitehead, a 6-foot-4 combo guard ranked No. 14 in Rivals.com's Class of 2014 ratings. Rivals.com's Eric Bossi said Whitehead is a potential McDonald's All-American and Seton Hall's most significant recruiting pick-up in more than a decade.
"Not since Tommy Amaker was bringing in guys like Eddie Griffin with the 2000 class has Seton Hall been this relevant in recruiting," Bossi said. "Fact is it may take a year or two for this to make much of a change. But, it certainly buys Willard some time from a fan base that has been after him for better recruiting results."
Critics of Willard are correct that hiring assistant coaches based on their ties to certain top prospects isn't symptomatic of a healthy program, but it's totally legal under NCAA rules. Furthermore, everyone should remember this isn't Duke or North Carolina. McDonald's All-Americans aren't exactly lining up to come to Seton Hall unless the head coach gets a bit creative.
Ultimately, hiring Morton to help land his star player may not be a gamble that works for Willard. Maybe Whitehead only lasts one season with the Pirates, and Willard gets fired anyway in a couple years.
But what Willard was doing on the recruiting trail prior to this offseason wasn't working anyway. This is a move that buys him some time and gives him a chance to get Seton Hall good enough to where he won't have to hire a high school or AAU coach to get the next big recruit he targets.