Already on positive side of NCAA Tournament bubble, Tony Bozzella seeks a Big East championship as Seton Hall opens conference tournament Sunday against Marquette. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
Just three years into his tenure at Seton Hall, Tony Bozzella has won 70 games, a Coach of the Year award, and is on track to reach his second straight NCAA Tournament.
But for all he has already accomplished in a short amount of time in South Orange, there is one thing the charismatic leader is still missing from his checklist: A conference championship.
Bozzella and Seton Hall get their chance to mark the empty box this week in Chicago, when the Pirates, (22-7) seeded third in the Big East tournament, open the postseason Sunday afternoon against sixth-seeded Marquette, entertaining the Golden Eagles in a 3:30 p.m. showdown in the Windy City.
"I do think the draw sets up best for us, because we're not in DePaul's bracket," the coach said of Seton Hall's chances at cutting down the nets on the Blue Demons' home floor of McGrath-Phillips Arena. "To play DePaul, which is arguably the best team, on their home floor is a tremendous challenge. Just to avoid playing them until the finals, if we were to get there, is a big advantage."
With that said, the Pirates' opener is no layup in and of itself, as Marquette has proven to be a tough out for Seton Hall outside of Walsh Gymnasium, something that has Bozzella legitimately concerned.
"She's doing a great job with them," he said of second-year head coach Carolyn Kieger, who has taken a Marquette roster that is among the youngest in the nation and placed it firmly in or near the top half of the league. "Five of her top six kids are freshmen, and she's really done a great job of getting them to play hard and play offensively on a really high, high level. That's our big concern. How are we going to stop them? Because when we played them at their place, we struggled to stop them, and they played well. We're going to have to really buckle down and get back to playing defense the way we did in the non-conference schedule, when we beat all those great teams."
While Marquette, led by Big East Freshman of the Year Allazia Blockton, who may have been a Player of the Year contender in any other season, remains a formidable foe, Seton Hall still has a weapon that few coaches have been able to neutralize, that being first team All-Big East selection Tabatha Richardson-Smith, the Pirates' all-time leading scorer.
"For her to have the year she's had with the amount of attention she gets on the floor has made us a lot better team," said Bozzella of Richardson-Smith. "The thing about Tab is there are games that people go into DePaul and they don't game plan around (Chanise) Jenkins, they game plan around (Megan) Podkowa or (Jessica) January. All Tab does is get face-guarded every single play, every single game. She gets the opponent's best defender on her every single time, and she's fought through it."
"I think this is a fun tournament for us," he continued. "We're going to have a lot of fun, we're going to enjoy ourselves and play our game. I think we could play a little looser because our resume has been put into a place that we are an NCAA Tournament team. We've proved our mettle throughout the year by our body of work, and at 22-7, being as good as we are with our non-conference wins, we can be more relaxed since we're not on the bubble, and that says a lot about the kids and where we're at."