SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. -- When Kevin Willard succeeded Bobby Gonzalez as the head coach of Seton Hall in late March, he inherited a boatload of uncertainty.
Seton Hall's three top players -- Herb Pope, Jeremy Hazell and Jeff Robinson -- all declared for the NBA Draft but did not hire agents.
"I'm looking at my board in my office right now, and I have two teams," Willard told 1050 ESPN Radio on March 29. "One with everybody coming back and one with everybody going to the NBA. It's one of those things -- if they can get drafted, we wish them the best of luck."
Six months later, Willard, the former Iona coach, has the team he initially hoped for. The one with "everybody coming back."
All three players are participating in preseason workouts, including the 6-foot-8 Pope, who collapsed April 30 during a workout and was hospitalized at St. Barnabas Medical Center.
"I think he's coming along nicely," Willard said of Pope on Monday in the auxiliary gym at Seton Hall. "Knowing him as a dominant rebounder, your thought process goes with that's really what he is. But I think he's really shown me some nice outside touch. He's worked hard on his low-post game, so I think he's made great progress."
Willard would not make Pope available Monday, and the junior likely won't speak publicly until the program's media day on Nov. 2.
Still, Willard said he expects "all our guys to be ready to go" for the season opener Nov. 12 at Temple.
A year ago, Pope led the Big East in rebounds with 10.7 per game and had 13 double-doubles in the team's 32 games.
Former Seton Hall big man Grant Billmeier is now the coordinator of basketball operations and has a unique perspective on Pope.
"He just has an unbelievable nose for the ball," Billmeier said. "He almost has that Dennis Rodman mentality on the court where he feels like every shot that goes up, whether it's his teammate's or someone else's shot, he's going to go up and get it. He's only about a legitimate 6-8, but he looks at every ball like, 'I'm not going to get a whole lot of post passes, so I've got to go get this every single time.'"
The Pirates finished 19-13 last season, 9-9 in the Big East. But with a healthy Pope joining the other core players, Seton Hall hopes to break into the top eight of the 16-team conference.
"I think if Herb Pope returns with that personnel and the type of coach Kevin Willard is, you're looking at a team that's possibly a top-25 team and a team that will contend to be at the top of the Big East," one Big East assistant coach said over the summer.
"With Kevin's style of play and those kids, I think that team could be tremendous."
Pope's return isn't the only good news for Seton Hall.
On Monday, Hazell was named to the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 list. He enters this season 705 points shy of tying Terry Dehere's all-time Seton Hall scoring record of 2,494. Hazell would need to average about 22 points per game to break the mark.
"I think with Jeremy's body of work over the last three years, I think he deserved that," Willard said. "Obviously, any time you can be associated with John Wooden, I think that's a tremendous honor."
Pope, Hazell, the 6-6 Robinson and 6-foot junior point guard Jordan Theodore figure to take four of the five starting spots.
From there, Willard can opt to choose from among 6-5 guard Eniel Polynice, 6-2 guard Keon Lawrence, 6-6 freshman wing Fuquan Edwin, 6-8 forward Ferrakohn Hall or 6-9 freshman forward Patrik Auda.
"I look at this team as Jordan, Jeff, Herb, Jeremy, EP and Keon, and I've been really impressed with Ferrakohn Hall," Willard said. "I think Ferrakohn's going to be a huge part of what this team does because he can go inside and out. He's really worked hard. He's gained almost 15 pounds of muscle already. Our strength coach has done a terrific job, and we've got to continue to develop him. But I see him being a huge piece to these guys."
As for Edwin, Willard said: "I love Fu. He's like Reggie Miller to me. He's got one of the ugliest shots that goes in. He's coming in with a great atttitude. He's worked hard. I see big things for Fuquan."
Willard brought in two European players in Auda of the Czech Republic and 6-11 British center Aaron Geramipoor, both of whom need to adjust to the American style of play.
"I think Aaron will eventually be a five," Willard said. "Aaron has the longest way to go just because of an age issue. He just turned 18. Jeremy's 24 -- he's almost a different generation.
"I think Patrik is going to be one of these guys that people look at and say, 'Oh, wow,'" Willard added. "He's a jack of all trades. He does everything a little well. For him, it's just getting Americanized to the speed of the game. I'm really looking for good things from him."
Now is the year for Seton Hall to make a big push since it could lose as many seven players after this season.
Five seniors -- Hazell, Lawrence, Polynice, Jamel Jackson and Darnell Gatling -- are listed on the roster. Pope may leave early to go pro. And Robinson may be finished as well, assuming the NCAA doesn't grant him a waiver to play an extra year. He became eligible at midseason last year after transferring from Memphis.
In that sense, Seton Hall resembles St. John's, which has 10 total scholarships to give for 2011, and Rutgers, which has seven. The Pirates already have a commitment from 6-2 guard Aaron Cosby of Northfield (Mass.) Mount Hermon.
"We're going with what we have to get five [players]," Willard said, holding out hope that Pope and Robinson might both return. "We have to bring in five good players."
He added, "With Herb back and if Jeff comes back, you've got a good core."
Yet next season is next season, and this season is now.
Willard said the players are anxious to prove to the doubters just what they can do.
"We have a tough schedule, but I'm looking forward to letting this team do what they want to do," he said.
Seton Hall will participate in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, beginning with a Nov. 19 tilt against Alabama. St. Peter's College is also in the event ... The Prudential Center will host the NCAA East Regional on March 25 and 27, and Matt Sweeney, assistant athletic director for media communications, will run the media side. He said he expects to lean heavily on colleagues such as Mark Fratto of St. John's, who may be asked to moderate interviews at the event.