By Phil Collin
Fullerton, Calif., November 24, 2018 – Consumed by the preparations for his own team, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard admitted he has barely caught a glimpse of what Miami has done on the other side of the bracket in the 2018 Wooden Legacy.
But he promised that before his Pirates (3-2) take on the Hurricanes (5-0) for the tournament championship Monday at Cal State Fullerton, he’d procure a scouting report from a pretty good source.
“I have a lot of work to do,” Willard said after his team’s semifinal victory over Hawaii in Titan Gym. “I know Jim Larranaga is one of the best coaches in the country and so I know that no matter, what we’re going to go against an unbelievably well-coached defensive team.
“I know he and my father probably went up against each other quite a few times and my father’s a better coach than I ever will be. I might have to call my father and see how he did against Coach Larranaga. Need some help.”
Ralph Willard won 336 games in his coaching career at three stops – Western Kentucky, Pittsburgh and Holy Cross. He took the Hilltoppers to the 1993 NCAA Sweet 16. In head-to-head meetings between with Larranaga, the elder Willard won once in four games.
Behind standout guard Myles Powell, who is averaging 29.5 points in the two tournament games, Seton Hall has defeated Grand Canyon (82-75) and Hawaii (64-54). Miami, look for its fifth ESPN Events tournament title, has used a balanced attack to defeat La Salle (85-49) and Fresno State (78-76).
Larranaga has a 636-413 career record and is 166-79 in his eighth season at Miami.
The Hurricanes, who survived the semifinals with a last-second tip dunk from Zach Johnson, have three guards – Johnson, Chris Lykes and DJ Vasiljevic – who have combined to average 44 points per game in the tournament.
“One of the things about our team and particularly our starting lineup is four of those guys were guys that came off the bench last year,” Larranaga said. “Chris came off the bench for two-thirds of the season. For these guys, they’re now playing the majority of the minutes. We need good balance, we have a group of starters that need plenty of playing time together. Last year they did it as rotation players … now, the torch has been passed to them to carry the major load.”
Third place, Fresno State (2-2) vs. Hawaii (4-2) – The Bulldogs opened with an impressive 19-point win over Northwestern before having their hearts broken by Miami’s final-second rebound basket. Fresno State has been led by guard Braxton Huggins, the tournament’s second-leading scorer (22.5 points per game). The Rainbow Warriors are limiting opponents to 28 percent 3-point shooting and have four players averaging in double figures on offense.
Fifth place, Northwestern (4-1) vs. Utah (3-2) – The Wildcats have lost by 19 and won by 17, but Coach Chris Collins was impressed the way his team bounced back in the second game. Guard Vic Law (17 points per game) and forward A.J. Turner 14 per game) are leading the way. The Utes also rebounded nicely and fended off feisty Grand Canyon in the second round behind guard Sedrick Barefield, who scored 20 of his 26 points before halftime. That followed two 4-point games for the senior.
Seventh place, La Salle (0-6) vs. Grand Canyon (3-3) – The Explorers are still trying to give first-year Coach Ashley Howard his first career win and when it comes, it will be sparked by a scrambling, trapping defense that never stops. La Salle has been stymied by foul trouble and has struggled to score (61.5 points per game). The Lopes, with a raucous fan base on board from Phoenix, are led by forward Alessandro Lever (averaging 18 points in the tournament) but has allowed their opponents to shoot 56 percent from the field in the event.