Tony Bozzella entertains a crowd as large and inviting as his upbeat personality while holding court at Big East media day. (Photo courtesy of Tom Chen via Seton Hall University Athletics)
When we spoke during the offseason, Tony Bozzella highlighted one word first and foremost before assessing what his Seton Hall team would look like: Consistency.
Nearly four months since that conversation, not only has the consistency the Pirates' head coach desired entering his third season at the helm taken root, it has grown legs and run along with his trademark uptempo offensive style going into a year in which Seton Hall will attempt to match a 28-win campaign and NCAA Tournament appearance.
"This team has been very consistent," Bozzella proudly stated at Wednesday's Big East media day, "and shockingly so with all these new kids. We had eight practices, and we had eight good practices, and I never thought I would ever say that. Their consistency has been great, and I know we're going to run through a patch of inconsistency, but I'm proud of this team, very proud so far."
For a Pirate team picked fifth in the Big East preseason poll, and one that will need to adjust to life without program rock Ka-Deidre Simmons at point guard and the suffocating defense of Daisha Simmons, a compliment from the normally reserved; at least during this stage of the season, Bozzella is more a harbinger of optimism than the typical coachspeak normally handed out in settings like the one at Madison Square Garden two days ago.
"I think with people not knowing what we have coming in, not knowing how good Lubirdia Gordon has become, or Tiffany Jones, they could pick us fifth," the coach conceded. "We expect to finish a lot higher, and I'll be disappointed if we don't. We're picked fifth, but we're going to be better than fifth."
Losing a backcourt the caliber of the Simmonses would be a cause for concern at any program across the country, but very few coaches have the eye for talent and player development skills Bozzella has, a skill set that landed him both Florida State graduate transfer Shakena Richardson, as well as Aleesha Powell. The point guard during his last two seasons at Iona, where Powell played alongside the likes of Joy Adams and Damika Martinez; the latter of whom departed New Rochelle as the all-time leading scorer in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference history, brings an innate knowledge of Bozzella's system and expectations with her to South Orange, factors that will no doubt ease the transition among the guards.
"People don't understand, people that have not watched her play, how good a basketball player she is and how great a competitor," the coach said of his returning floor general. "She's a warrior out there, knows the system, has gotten a lot better playing against Didi and Daisha last year in her sit-out year. I'm telling you, she's an all-conference caliber player in this league, no doubt."
Of Richardson, who began her career at Seton Hall's bitter in-state rival, Rutgers, before joining the Seminoles, Bozzella praised her for being "so talented, and such a great person and leader. We're blessed to have her. She's not Didi, she's not Daisha, she's Kena, and Kena's going to be really good."
"She's a tough kid," he continued. "She's physical, and she's a tremendous passer. She won't score as well as Daisha and Didi probably, but she's passing the ball at a higher level than they did. She's a really vocal, outward leader. This team needed that very much, more than anything."
While Powell and Richardson split the backcourt duties, the beat goes on for the Pirates on the wing, where Tabatha Richardson-Smith, the latest example of how Bozzella and his staff develop their talent, enters her senior season as the face of the program.
"Tab can be Player of the Year," Bozzella declared. "She's got all the ability. She's got toughness, she loves to play, she's defending better, rebounding better, taking the ball to the basket as well as I could have hoped for. She's got to maintain the understanding that she's going to be guarded by the other team's best player, they're going to be physical with her, they're going to try to take her out of her game. She's got to stay mature, stay calm, and if she does that, the sky's the limit."
Taylor Byrne, a 6-1 forward from Massapequa, and California guard LaTecia Smith headline Seton Hall's four-player freshman class, and all indications are that the two will make an immediate impact despite the experience at the top of the depth chart.
"I know they didn't get Freshman of the Year or anything like that," Bozzella stated, "but that's okay. I wouldn't trade those two freshmen for anybody. If I had to start these two kids, I would be comfortable. Bringing them off the bench, they're a strong weapon that I have."
Smith "defends Shakena and Aleesha as well as Didi and Daisha defended anybody," the coach gushed. "She's a tough hombre out there, I'm telling you, and Taylor Byrne will give us a consistent game off the bench every game this year. Both those kids could start, but with our talent, they don't need to, and that says a lot about our players."
Aside from the consistency that Bozzella stressed, one more characteristic has revealed itself through the opening stretch of practices leading up to the season opener against Bryant on November 13, something last season's team perhaps lacked in relation to this year's group despite all the accolades.
"This group likes to be physical," he clarified. "You want to know the difference? This group is a much more physical team. Last year's group was very athletic, very talented team. This team, while they have talent, is physical. This team wants to hit you, wants to get hit. This team wants to play a physical game."