After 11 years of turning Iona from also-ran to contender, Tony Bozzella hopes to achieve similar results at Seton Hall in a shorter amount of time. (Photo courtesy of Iona College)
Three coaches have had the chance to guide Seton Hall University women's basketball and build the program into a perennial winner, yet have had a rough go of it in recent years, with just four winning seasons since 1996 to show for their efforts.
Enter Tony Bozzella.
Despite a career record under .500, the 47-year-old Seton Hall alumnus brings several qualities to South Orange that had been sorely lacking in previous regimes. With a proven track record of scoring recruiting coups coupled with a family-oriented and development-centered style that encourages players to perform to the best of their abilities, what's not to like?
"We're trying to establish a culture," Bozzella gushed recently when asked what his biggest accomplishment had been with his new roster during the six months of offseason workouts prior to Seton Hall's first practice. "They have a willingness to learn, they've been really good in individuals. They want to get better, and I think it's something they're starving for."
Getting better has long been a goal for the Pirates, especially when you consider the state of the program in the second half of Phyllis Mangina's tenure; as well as the brief Anne Donovan era, yet when the new caretaker of his alma mater's program mentions the subject improvement, he does so with such an incurable optimism that one cannot help but believe the once-empty words of the last two decades will soon become reality.
"With our players, a lot of them are looking for something to prove," Bozzella said, "which I think is always great. I think a lot of them feel we've underachieved wins and losses-wise, and (that) we can do better."
One area in which the Pirates will see an immediate improvement is on the front line, with a size influx rarely seen at any level. Of the fifteen players on Seton Hall's roster, nine of them are six feet or taller, with the shortest being 5-8 junior guards Ka-Deidre Simmons and Alexis Brown, an asset that will enable Bozzella to take the system he honed to perfection with shorter players at Iona and tailor it to make his new group into more than just an athletic team, but one who also runs the floor just as well as it defends.
"We've got to use our size and our athleticism to our advantage," he pointed out, "because we don't shoot the ball like my old Iona teams used to." It should be noted that Bozzella left behind a pair of proven shooters in reigning MAAC Player of the Year Damika Martinez and Aleesha Powell, both of whom would have no problem filling the same roles on any roster in the Big East, to take over a Seton Hall team whose top outside shooter graduated last May in shooting guard Brittany Morris, who accounted for nearly half of the team's total trifectas.
Regardless of the downgrade in outside shooting, Bozzella managed to position himself with a team that should be a prime candidate to take advantage of the open door in the Big East created by the defections of powerhouses Connecticut and Notre Dame; as well as consistent top-flight programs in Louisville and Syracuse, blending youth and experience with an initial recruiting class that includes a coveted in-state prospect in Kat Egan, who was going to play for Bozzella no matter what, ultimately following him to Seton Hall after he left Iona in late March.
The combination of players at every level should be beneficial to Seton Hall, as should a schedule that is very conducive to immediate success. Ten of the Pirates' first thirteen games come inside the confines of Walsh Gym, which has been desperately craving a return to its past glory days, when the tiny venue became a bandbox that doubled as a house of horrors for visiting teams.
"It's great because our fans will see an exciting style of ball," Bozzella proclaimed, "but with that, Jaden, comes a little bit of pressure. These kids are now playing in front of their fans, and now they feel pressure to do well, so we've got to overcome that fear and that nervousness of playing in front of our home crowd. If we can get the confidence of playing at home, then we should be a tough out." Yet with all the optimism, Seton Hall's leader remains realistic, acknowledging that it may not be a sugar-coated road to the top in the opening weeks and months.
"It's not going to be easy for us," Bozzella cautioned, "because we are young in a lot of ways. We're new, and I'm interested to see how we act. That's why we're playing an exhibition game, because it gives us a dry run before we start playing in front of our own fans." The difficulty includes an early nonconference matchup with South Carolina in Columbia, a game that continues Bozzella's tradition of scheduling a Top 25 program to help gauge the readiness of his young charges going further into nonconference play and also into the Big East; similar to how his Iona team went to Cameron Indoor Stadium last season to play Duke, and continues on into the league portion of the schedule, which commences with a trip to Carnesecca Arena to face a St. John's team that, despite losing warrior guards Shenneika Smith and Nadirah McKenith, remains among the class of the conference.
When asked about what those new to Seton Hall women's basketball, Bozzella gave an honest answer in regard to what his on-court product would look like.
"We're still tinkering with what we're going to do offensively," he said. "We might do a little dribble-drive, maybe a little four-out, one-in, because we do have some great size. Defensively, we're going to pressure a lot more than usual. We're going to press, we're going to be in the passing lanes, we're going to be aggressive. We didn't do enough of that last year. WE ARE going to do that this year. You will see that out of Seton Hall, that I can promise you."
At his press conference last March, Tony Bozzella asked a four-word question that is usually not on people's minds, but one that is becoming increasingly popular whenever someone looks at the current roster and what it has the potential to become, under the direction of a man who strives for nothing less than the best and encourages all around him to do the same:
Why not Seton Hall?