Pitino protege Willard returns to lead Iona against Cardinals Print
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Saturday, 29 December 2007 02:23
NCAAB Headline News


 LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Kevin Willard was in the middle of his first game as head coach at Iona last month when opponent Robert Morris went on a run to take the lead.
Willard kept looking down the bench, waiting for someone to call timeout.
It was only then that the longtime Louisville assistant realized he didn't have to wait for Rick Pitino to give the signal anymore.
``The big thing is everything is pretty much on your shoulders,'' said Willard, who brings Iona to Freedom Hall on Saturday to face Pitino and the Cardinals. ``Before you always had a sounding board, you always had someone else to help you. Now it's really just pretty much all on you. Even though I have a great staff, those final decisions come down to you. It takes awhile to get used to that.''
Consider Willard a quick study. The Gaels (5-7) have already more than doubled their win total from a year ago and have won five of their last six behind the young coach who spent his formative years on the sideline absorbing everything Pitino threw at him.
Willard considers Pitino a ``father figure,'' and while he knows his team will be in a tight spot against the Cardinals (8-3), there will be a sense of satisfaction knowing he'll be facing Pitino as an equal.
``What I'm looking forward to is looking down (the sideline) and seeing him yell 'White,' yell 'Black,' 'Five,' and all that stuff and just remember how many things he's really taught me,'' Willard said.
The two still talk often, though the dynamic of the relationship has changed. Where Willard used to play devil's advocate while coaching under Pitino, these days Willard is the one asking for advice.
``Now he's making me think about things and I'm asking him more about how to deal with players instead of him telling me how to do it,'' Willard said. ``It's a nice difference.''
Willard is the second of three former Pitino assistants who will face the Cardinals this season. Louisville beat former assistant Marvin Menzies, now the head coach at New Mexico State, last weekend. Former assistant Mick Cronin brings Cincinnati to Freedom Hall on Jan. 1.
Willard, like most of Pitino's former coaches, has borrowed heavily from Pitino's playbook. The Gaels like to push the ball, shoot the 3-pointer and be aggressive on defense. Though Willard knows his team will be a heavy underdog, the game could also serve as a valuable lesson for his players.
``It's going to be a great test for our guys, to watch them do what we try to do every day is going to be special,'' Willard said.
The Cardinals have won three straight during their five-game homestand, though Pitino has hardly been overwhelmed by his team's play.
Louisville was sluggish for a half in a 73-49 win over Morehead State on Wednesday, but Pitino said there are signs the Cardinals are starting to get it together. He praised the work ethic of forward Derrick Caracter and thinks the heavy practice load during the winter break is starting to pay dividends.
It helps that center David Padgett, who injured his right knee in a win over Jackson State on Nov. 18, has returned to practice. Padgett has been involved in non-contact drills this week and could be back as early as Jan. 10.
The Cardinals, many of whom were recruited by Willard, said it's going to be strange watching him on the other sideline.
``He will know the ins and outs of everything and everybody,'' Louisville guard Andre McGee said. ``He's the man that put in everything for this team.''
It won't be easy for Willard either, though he only laughed when asked if he would offer individual instruction to McGee during a deadball just out of habit, something Menzies did last week.
``I'm going to tell (McGee) to throw it to my team, that's the only instruction he's getting from me,'' Willard said with a laugh. ``Marvin's a lot nicer than I am, that's for sure.''
 

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