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Ralph Willard: Verbatim

1 February, 2007

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Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard has done it all, from working under Rick Pitino in the NBA and at Kentucky, to building a mid-major program at Western Kentucky and coaching in Big East at Pittsburgh, before returning his alma mater, where he’s led the Crusaders to three NCAA Tournament appearances and has designs on a fourth this season. In an interview with Basketball U.’s Elliot Smilowitz, Willard opens up on the direction of the Patriot League, his school’s rivalry with Bucknell, his players, and much more.

Q: Going back to the Bucknell game, given way the games went the last two times Bucknell came to Worcester, how important do you think it was to finally get over the hump and beat them?

A: I think it was important to win at home, certainly, because we’d lost two very close games the two previous times. Obviously, we wanted to rectify that situation. Two years in a row they basically beat us in the last minute of the game, so it was important to win this game.

Q: Are you worried at all about the team looking ahead to the game at Bucknell, and are you doing anything in particular to try to keep them focused on the upcoming games?

A: No, not at all. I think our guys understand that neither us nor Bucknell are going to go undefeated in the conference. It’s just not going to happen. There are too many teams with outstanding home records for that to happen. It’s just a game-by-game situation. The fact that the teams are so familiar with each other in this league, every game is going to be a battle. I don’t even know what date we play Bucknell to be honest about it.

Q: As you touched on, everybody came into the season thinking the Patriot League was up for grabs. How important was it to start the season winning games in November and get on a roll?

A: Well, if you look at our schedule, our schedule is ridiculous. Having those three or four home games was critical, because we were away from home for 45 straight days. So obviously getting some home games early and getting some wins and some confidence before we went out on the road was very important. Otherwise it would have been difficult, because road games in college basketball are very difficult, and when you’re away for 45 days it’s really difficult.

Q: Let’s talk about Keith Simmons a little bit. His percentages are down from last year, but he’s obviously having a great season in many ways. How do you think he’s adjusted from being the second option last year behind Kevin Hamilton to being the first option?

A: Last year I think that he was a co-option with Kevin, except that the cramping he experienced all year limited him at the end of games. Basically, he was not able to perform at the end of games. If he had been able to perform like he is this year, the whole scenario may have been different last year. We’ve got the cramping solved, and Keith Simmons is the player that we all knew he was. The player that he was for the first 25 minutes of most games last year, now it’s the assurance he can do it all game. He can play at any level in college basketball. He’s the single most efficient offensive player I’ve ever coached. He doesn’t take many shots, his shooting percentages are off the charts, and obviously his scoring and rebounding and defense, all the other things, are way off the charts too. He’s one of the most complete players I’ve ever coached.

Q: Do you think he’s completely over the cramping problem?

A: We looked at everything that was different between his sophomore year and his junior year, and the only thing that was different was he had added 9 pounds of muscle. That was the only thing different. His body was the same, the things he was doing. He’s always been a heavy perspirer. We were always trying to keep him hydrated. But to make a long story short, he lost the nine pounds — that extra nine pounds of muscle — and he’s back to being fit to play 34, 35 minutes a game.

Q: Moving over to another player that’s had trouble staying on the court at times, Pat Doherty suffered another injury this year. Do you think he’s being set too far back by these injuries, or can he continue to develop the way you’d like him to?

A: Just having Pat as another ballhandler and someone who can spell Torey is huge. We obviously missed Pat last year, when Torey had to go 40 minutes every game or 39 minutes every game. His hand is still sore. He’s probably about 70 percent, and probably won’t get any better for the rest of this year. But Pat Doherty at 70 percent is better than no Pat Doherty. He’s made a big difference since he’s been back to our basketball team.

Q: Your team has only two seniors and a bunch of underclassmen. How do you feel about the job that Simmons and Torey Thomas have done as leaders in games, and also as leaders in practice?

A: I’ve said this over and over again; I haven’t coached two better people in 37 years of coaching basketball. They are not only outstanding players, they’re just super human beings. They do all the things right in their life. They’re leaders, and great teachers. They actually teach the other guys the right way, in terms of how to approach practice from a mental standpoint as well as a physical standpoint. I can’t say enough about either one of them. They’re tremendous. Our young guys look up to them. Our young guys respect them, and that’s really important to the chemistry of our basketball team.

Q: To look at a couple of those underclassmen as you mentioned, two guys who’ve gotten a lot of time this year are Eric Meister and Kyle Cruze, who has been starting in Doherty’s absence. What do you think of their performance as far as stepping up to the task and taking over these minutes?

A: When Pat went down with the injury, we needed someone to step up, and Kyle has done that. I’ve been very happy with him. He’s an extremely hard-working young man. And Eric Meister — well we also had Andrew Keister, and Andrew unfortunately has a stress fracture in his femur — so Eric became the primary guy off the bench for our front line, and he’s done an outstanding job. He’s a very good athlete. He has good low post moves, and he has a great nose for the basketball. He’s a really good rebounder for his body. He rebounds much bigger than his size. Those guys have been very important for our success, and hopefully they’ll continue to grow and get better, and that will make our team better.

Q: You mentioned Andrew Keister’s injury; can you just give a rundown of the status of Lawrence Dixon and all the players who are banged up right now?

A: Well Pat’s playing. His hand is still broken, but he’s playing, because he was cleared to play. He has to ice it, and it certainly affects his ability to shoot the basketball, but it will probably be that way from now until the end of the year. Lawrence Dixon’s knee is still in recovery mode. I think he’s able to play right now, it’s just a matter of getting him practice reps, but I think hopefully within a week or so he’ll be able to get in a game and give us a solid contribution. Andrew Keister is unfortunately out for the year. He has a stress fracture in his femur.

Q: With the win over Bucknell and being undefeated in the league, are you worried about having a target on your back?

A: Well, we’ve been there. Two years ago, we went 13-1 in the league and won the regular season. We had a target on our back all that year, and we won 15 games in a row. We’ve been in the upper echelon in the conference every year except for one out of the last six. So we’re getting used to that. But again, we’re not concerned about anybody else. We’re more concerned about how we play and how we execute. We know that teams are going to be well prepared in this conference and they’re going to take their best shot at every team that they play. So that’s not really even a consideration for us.

Q: The Navy game went from a one-point game at the half to a blowout really fast. Where do you think that killer instinct comes from?

RW: Navy plays a matchup zone, and in the first half they had us standing around and not really moving the basketball. We played great defense, we held them to 19 points [in the first half]. But we made some adjustments at halftime. We came out and moved the ball better, we cut harder, and we got some great looks and some inside touches, and as a consequence we shot 66 percent. And we still held them to 31 percent for the game. So it was a matter of better offensive execution, and the defense was great for 40 minutes for us, and enabled us to turn the game around.

Q: You do a unique thing with your website, CoachRalphWillard.com, and being so interactive with the fans. Where did that idea stem from, and how do you like the way it’s gone?

A: We have a very active fan base, and a lot of people interested in the program. Obviously, not all of them live in the Boston/Worcester area. So it’s a great way to stay in touch, and a great way to keep fans informed about the program, and give a little insight into what we’re thinking and how we’re approaching games and approaching the season. I think it’s gone pretty well. I have some typos and some grammatical errors unfortunately, because I’m typing at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. But we’ve got a great response from our fans, and I think it’s turned out really well.

Q: Given Bucknell’s success in the NCAA Tournament and in raising the Patriot League’s profile overall, has that changed your job in recruiting or in dealing with the media or anything?

A: I think the great thing that Bucknell did was they won those two games and showed there’s good basketball in this conference. That first year, when we won the regular season championship, we beat Notre Dame in the NIT at Notre Dame and Bucknell beat Kansas. I think that winning in the postseason tournaments shows that the basketball in this league is getting better and better. But it’s a year-to-year thing. George Mason went to the Final Four last year, and this year they’re struggling. That’s the thing about college basketball; the landscape changes every year.

Q: Do you think the Patriot League is moving up and becoming a more important league in the nation? And do you think the Patriot League can become bigger in basketball and keep its rigorous academic standards?

A: Well, I don’t think we’re ever going to become big-time basketball. I don’t think it’s the objective of the administrations and the presidents in the conference. What I think we’ve really become is a quality basketball league. More and more kids are recognizing the importance of an education. And the fact that the league’s profile has risen over the last four or five years gives us a better opportunity to attract better players that could have gone to a Notre Dame or a Stanford or whoever. So I don’t think we’re going to be big-time, but I think we can have a quality mid-major basketball conference that represents the schools on a national level very well.

Q: Army and Navy have gone from being doormats in the Patriot League to having strong seasons this year. How do you feel about their success bringing up the overall quality the Patriot League?

A: Their progress is great for the league. When I first got to the league, Navy was a very strong program. I think their coach Billy Lange has done a great job with recruiting and putting players at Navy Prep, and Jim Crews is doing the same thing at Army. Air Force obviously is a top program this year. I think the military service academies can be very good and very important forces in our league.

Q: For the first time since 2001, you’re coaching a team with no players who have won the league tournament or gone to the NCAA Tournament before. Do you think that helps or hurts the team?

A: It’s a challenge, but it’s also a motivation. Our two seniors want to play in the NCAA Tournament. That’s their goal. That’s their motivation, and I think it’s motivation for the other guys to send them out with an opportunity to play in the NCAAs.

Q: With the BracketBuster game coming up out of conference, do you see that as a distraction or an opportunity?

A: I see it as an opportunity to play against a good team from a good conference, and also to get a return home game the following year, which is important in our league. If you look around, teams like Bucknell and us have very few home games. So it’s an opportunity to play a quality non-conference game and also to get a home game the following year.

Q: With your history and your career, you’ve got a unique perspective on college sports. What do you see as the differences between the big-time athletes that you dealt with in the Big East and the student-athletes you get now?

A: I think the biggest thing is — at least in our conference — there’s an understanding of why the kids are here. They’re all passionate about basketball, they’re all really good, and they want to win. But they all realize that the reason they came to the schools is to get a good education. Basketball is very important, but it’s also secondary to their education. I think that’s the biggest difference. What happens sometimes at the bigger schools is unfortunately there are a lot of cases where the reason the kids think that they’re there is to play basketball.

Q: From a personal standpoint, do you enjoy working at a place like Holy Cross more than you’d like to go back to the big-time?

A: I think coaching is coaching. I really do. I think I could be coaching in high school right now and enjoy it. It all comes down to your passion for teaching. Coaching is really most of all teaching. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve tried to be a good teacher. As long as you’re focusing your time on doing that, you can be happy wherever you are.

Q: The George Mason game this year was at the DCU Center. Is that something you’re going to look to do again in the future?

A: We’re playing Dayton there next year. We’re trying to play more and more games there every year.

Q: You’re inching up the list of Holy Cross’s all-time coaching wins, and possibly going to move up to second behind only George Blaney this year. As a former Holy Cross student and basketball player, how important to you is it to leave a mark on the school?

A: I’m not really concerned about those types of things. I’m concerned about the 13 guys we have in our program, and the recruits we have coming in, and providing a great experience for them both on the court and off the court. That’s my focus; that’s really what’s important to me. And bringing in the type of young man that we’ll be proud to call alumni when they graduate. That’s what’s important to me as a former player and coach. We’re fortunate to have great kids in this program. We’re a tremendous school in a tremendous league. That’s what I’m proud of, and that’s what I think my job is.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about BC and not playing Holy Cross anymore. There’s also been some talk about a “New England Challenge” that would be kind of like Philadelphia’s Big 5, with round-robin games. What do you think of the rivalries in New England basketball, with BC and all the teams in the area, and do you think it would be beneficial to set up a series where you’d be playing the teams from the area often?

A: I think it would be great for general interest in New England basketball. Unfortunately one of the things that happened with the different leagues forming was the Providence/Holy Cross, and the Holy Cross/BC, and the BC/UMass, and all those teams that have great historic rivalries don’t play each other anymore. Getting a Big 5 type of setup, or even a tournament at the beginning of the year with all the schools in it, would be a tremendous asset. Especially now that BC and UConn are in different conferences, and UMass and Providence and us are all in different conferences. URI can be thrown into there as another school in that category. I think it would be great for basketball in New England and increasing the general interest level.

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