Feb. 19, 2014
By Sean Brennan
Special to BIGEAST.com
Long before Kevin Willard embarked on his career as a Division I men’s basketball coach he enjoyed an exemplary career as a point guard, first at Western Kentucky and then for three seasons at Pittsburgh.
So when Willard, Seton Hall’s head coach and the son of coach Ralph Willard, was asked if he sees any of himself in Pirates freshman guard Jaren Sina, another son of a coach, the first answer was expected to be an obvious, “Of course.”
Instead it went like this: “Oh my God, I hope not,” Willard said laughing. “Jaren is such a better player than I ever was. But I definitely see a coach’s son in him, if you know what I mean. I see someone who really knows the game, understands the game and thinks the game. That’s what I see in him.”
Jaren Sina, a key building block for Seton Hall’s future and Willard’s kindred spirit. A player who scored over 2,000 points and dished out over 800 assists in his career while playing for high school powerhouse Gill St. Bernard (N.J.) High School and its coach, his father, Mergin Sina.
“It was tough at times playing for my dad but at the same time having your dad as your coach you can learn so much,” Sina said. “A lot of the conversations at the dinner table were about basketball. He picked my game apart and I think that helped me a lot. But it’s something me and Coach Willard talk about that a lot. Playing for your dad, you’re held to higher expectations but at the same time it makes you more accountable of things, especially being a point guard, and I think that’s going to make me be a better player.”
Playing your high school basketball career under your father’s watchful – and at times – critical eye does have its benefits on the college level, so says Willard.
“I think mentally he’s more prepared for the game,” Willard said. “But I think everybody still has to go through it physically. But I love his mental aspect to the game. I really thought that he would be able to handle his freshman year much better than most because of his mental toughness, knowing the game and thinking the game and I really think that’s transpired. I think he really has had such a good year in my mind because he’s been able to handle it mentally. I think he’s adjusting great.”
Aside from coaching Jaren for four years, Mergin Sina also gave Seton Hall an added assist. As a former Pirates player himself (from 1984-86), Mergin did have a little input on Jaren becoming a Pirate. Jaren had originally committed to Northwestern but when former coach Bill Carmody was fired, he asked for and was given his release from the school. That opened the door for Seton Hall and a return home to New Jersey for Sina.
“My dad really liked the school when he was here so he did definitely influence me to come here,” Sina said. “And I think it is a great fit. Just to play in New Jersey and have my family and friends at a lot of games is a great feeling and a great opportunity.”
But Willard and his staff also played a key role in luring Sina back to the Garden State. “I had a great relationship with the coaching staff, (assistant coaches) Fred Hill, Shaheen Holloway and coach Willard,” Sina said. “And I just thought the opportunity to play right away, play a lot of minutes and play in such a great conference as the BIG EAST was a no-brainer.”
While Sina’s family has become familiar faces at Pirates’ home games, Mergin Sina rarely attends. Duty calls.
“He owns his own basketball academy (Sina’s Hoop Academy) and he’s still coaching at Gill St. Bernard’s so it’s tough for him to make a lot of games,” Jaren Sina said. “My mom comes to a lot of games and I have a lot of family that come to the games so it works out pretty well.”
But when the Sina men do find time together, the talk is no longer that of coach and player.
“It’s funny, now that I’m in college our relationship has changed,” Sina said. “He’s more like a dad because he’s not my coach anymore. He leaves that to coach Willard now.”
But there is one topic that does tend to come up between father and son more often than son would like. Mergin Sina, while playing professionally in Portugal, once scored 69 points in a single game. It’s a record that still stands as the most points scored in a single game in the country’s history. It’s also a story Jaren has heard, um, often.
“Oh he’s told me about it a couple of times,” Jaren said with a laugh. “He always tells me how great a shooter he was so I always have to hear those stories.”
Jaren Sina, an accomplished shooter in his own right, promises better days ahead for Seton Hall and its fans. The scoring will come as he becomes more comfortable with the college game. Right now he’s just trying to blend in with the veteran Pirates team.
“I’m just picking and choosing my moments in the game and finding my place on the team,” Sina said. “I came out of high school where I was such a big scorer, but now it’s about finding my moments and doing whatever I can to help the team.”
Willard knows those high-scoring days are coming, too.
“Yeah, but I think that’s going to take time,” Willard said. “You don’t just hop into that role, not at this level. But I think that’s where he’ll adjust nicely and I think he’s going to be able to do some things.”
Like becoming one of the pillars on which the Pirates’ future success will be constructed.
“He’s really important to us,” Willard said. “He’s everything you want in a player. He’s a hard worker, a great student, he’s a great representative for the university and he’s a heck of a player who’s only going to get better and better. Somebody asked me once, ‘Give me something bad about Jaren’ and I said ‘I can’t give you anything bad about him.’ I have tremendous confidence in him when he’s on the floor. Now it’s just a matter of him getting more comfortable out there and with himself.”
The son of a coach playing for the son of a coach. The perfect foundation on which to build Seton Hall’s future.