Willard shines in Pitino's absence

Pinch hitting for University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino the past few days, assistant Kevin Willard shined in the future Hall of Famers absence.

Kevin Willard is a rising star.

Even though it was likely just a one game shot, this guy is no pinch hitter. Eventually, he'll be the guy that draws the big pay-check and bats clean up.

For now though, Willard is still paying his dues. But he earned major points in the eyes of some of the most knowledgeable fans in college basketball, the Louisville fans, with his performance this week in Rick Pitino's absence.

For starters, he was simply brilliant Tuesday night at O'Charley's filling in for Pitino on his weekly call in show. He was engaging with the fans, smooth with the camera crews, including those from ESPN, and even charmed the folks and the media with his dry and witty sense of humor.

He also received major points for the way he handled and addressed his DUI arrest in public this week. He took responsibility for his actions, admitted using poor judgment, vowed it would never happen again, and promised that he'd learned his lesson.

What more can you ask of a man in situations like that?

Then Wednesday, in his coaching debut, he showed the promise so many close to the program already knew he possessed.

He was calm, at least he appeared so outwardly, on the sidelines. His substitutions kept the Cardinals fresh and in command of the game, while visibly tiring Houston down the stretch. And he drew up some nice plays out of the timeout and came away victorious in his head coaching debut.

Not a bad debut by any stretch.

But it was the way he carried himself outside the lines, both prior to and following the game, that seemed to endear him to many of the fans in Freedom Hall last night.

"He's a class act," one fan said after watching Willard's post-game comments following Louisville's win over Houston Wednesday night. "And he did a great job also."

"I wouldn't mind if he was our next head coach," another said in reference to the 28-year-old Willard.

It's obvious from listening to Willard speak that he knows the game of basketball inside and out. Of course, that's to be expected when you've been around the game practically since birth and learned from two of the best coaches around, namely his father Ralph, and his mentor Pitino.

He's a great student of the game, too, and is one of the best coaches around at breaking down opponents and devising game plans that prove to be winners.

But all that stuff is for another day. And make no mistake, there will be a day in the not so distant future when some bright AD will give Pitino a call and ask for permission to talk with his fine, young assistant about the open head coaching position at his university.

Until that day, however, University of Louisville fans should be happy to have a guy like Willard around to pinch-hit so ably in the clutch when called upon.

And who knows? Perhaps we received a glimpse into the future last night and got a sneak peak of a future U of L head basketball coach in the making.

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