Tony Bozzella visits with Ryan Flannery and Clayton Collier of WSOU after Seton Hall's announcement as NCAA Tournament participant. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)
If anyone was tailor-made for March Madness, it would be Tony Bozzella.
The second-year Seton Hall coach brings a combination of youthful exuberance and veteran experience into the NCAA Tournament with the Pirates, who return to the field of 64 on Saturday evening, facing in-state and former conference rival Rutgers in the first round before advancing to presumably take on the women's basketball Goliath known as the University of Connecticut.
"If we're going to do it," he gushed, "let's play someone that generates some fan excitement. It's going to be a huge game, it's going to be a huge game for all of the state of New Jersey. These are two programs that have had a lot of success in the past."
Indeed, they are, with Seton Hall and Rutgers engaging in many fierce battles over the years, including last season's double-overtime WNIT epic from which the Scarlet Knights emerged victorious before joining the Big Ten. This latest renewal of a storied rivalry comes with an even juicier subplot leading into the weekend, too, as Bozzella declared Saturday would be "payback time," not just for last season's defeat, but also for Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer's refusal to schedule the Pirates when approached about a nonconference tilt.
But that is not the only part of what turned out to be a landmark Monday night in South Orange that Bozzella is focused on. Ever a student of the game and a proud compatriot of the coaching ranks, he made sure to compliment his counterparts that will be joining him in Gampel Pavilion, from Stringer to Geno Auriemma, even John Thurston of St. Francis Brooklyn, who won the first Northeast Conference championship in its basketball history; men's or women's, and will draw the Huskies after Seton Hall and Rutgers wage their latest war.
"I'm so happy for John," Bozzella particularly said of Thurston. "He came and played in our tournament this year. He's just a wonderful man, he's become a great leader at St. Francis, and for them to be in the tournament, it's going to be a special day as well."
On that note, the special day for Seton Hall reached a crescendo almost immediately after the selection show started, with the Pirates being the fourth team announced when their matchup with Rutgers confirmed just the third NCAA Tournament appearance in program history and first since 1995. In a situation similar to Manhattan College on the men's side and how the Jaspers find themselves in position to face Kentucky should they win their matchup with Hampton on Tuesday, Seton Hall faces a similar dilemma with UConn almost certainly waiting in the wings. Their precursor with Rutgers, however, is one that their coach feels will ease whatever pressure may come from a future date with the top-ranked team in the country.
"I think, in all honesty, playing Rutgers is the perfect antidote to that," Bozzella remarked when asked how he would keep his players from looking further on the horizon. "There's no way you're looking ahead of Rutgers, a great rivalry, a great team, a great program, and we're going to certainly going to be 100 percent focused on Rutgers."
Their taste of college basketball's highest level of postseason play is still over 100 hours away, but there is already a significant buzz emanating from South Orange, and in a question Bozzella is certain to field several times when he arrives in Storrs, he held nothing back when describing the meaning of being selected.
"I just think it means a lot that we're in the tournament," he passionately stated. "It's come full circle for these girls. They've worked so hard, we made a great stride last year by getting in the NIT and winning games. Now, let's get a stride by making the NCAA, and let's try to make it a bigger stride by winning a game or two."
Moments after the Pirates' inclusion into the field became a reality, Bozzella did have one last request for the hundreds gathered inside Walsh Gymnasium to watch the proceedings.
"I don't want to see any red," he admonished. "Let's fill the place with blue, Seton Hall blue."