South Orange — The biggest outcome of Seton Hall’s 112-38 dismantling of D-III Misericordia had nothing to do with the product on the court. It was who was leading the team from the sideline.
Assistant and former Pirates center Grant Billmeier, not head coach Kevin Willard.
Willard was serving the first of a two-game suspension due to an N.C.A.A. transfer tampering probe, leaving Billmeier to lead the troops, something he will also do next Tuesday in the season-opener against Wagner when the wins and losses start to count.
Billmeier of course played for Seton Hall from 2003-07 before becoming an assistant for Seton Hall, then Fairleigh Dickinson, before hopping back to South Orange again for his current stint. He isn’t short on experience.
“It’s certainly a lot different than being an assistant,” said Billmeier of his first head coaching gig.
“The one thing I’ll say about Coach Willard is he prepares everyone to one day be in that spot and to one day have their own program. Coach Willard is all about everyone being involved in all aspects of the program from scouting to recruiting to player development, overseeing academics. This is what he prepares us for on an everyday basis.
“But it was a different opportunity, it’s one that myself, Duane (Woodward), Tony (Skinn) and the younger guys on the coaching staff hope to one day be in. I think he does a great job preparing us if we’re fortunate enough to get a head coaching job one day.”
Always vocal on the sideline while playing an assistant role during games, Billmeier seems the natural choice to replace Willard during the suspension, expected to last through Wagner, but no longer than Stony Brook depending on an official N.C.A.A. ruling.
Billmeier, who led the majority if not all the timeout huddles tonight, is up to the task.
“Have fun, be yourself. That was the biggest thing,” said Billmeier of Willard’s advice to him heading into the game.
“Him having a great deal of confidence in me means the world to me. Someone I’ve been with for nine years. I’ve watched him, he’s been an unbelievable mentor to me, and someone I have been very fortunate to learn from for nine years. Four years as (director of basketball) operations and five years as an assistant. I’ve been able to get the best kind of education you can from being an assistant coach.”
How does the shake-up affect the coaching hierarchy for Wagner? It seems minimal, with assistant Tony Skinn looking like the temporary second-in-command if tonight’s huddles are any indication.
“Our staff is really hands-on. The great thing about our staff is everyone has great relationships with our players,” said the former Hall player of the staff’s shakeup.
“It’s not just myself speaking with the bigs, it’s a collective staff where everyone works together and everyone has relationships. We push these kids and they respond because of how much time Coach Willard gets us to invest with them off the court where we can coach them hard, challenge them, and push their buttons because they know we’re always going to be there for them.”
One thing is for sure: the groundwork bond that Kevin Willard has founded will be faced with a much tougher test when Wagner visits South Orange to take on Seton Hall and their temporary leader — Grant Billmeier — in a week’s time.