Thursday, August 4, 2016

Tony Bozzella seeks to build on consistency with experience for Seton Hall's youth

Tony Bozzella has consistency he sought last year, but now must go about shepherding a young roster through rigors of Big East season. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

At this point in the offseason one year ago, Tony Bozzella was adamant about the need for consistency in his Seton Hall program coming off a 28-win season and NCAA Tournament berth to cap off a banner year in South Orange.

With a 71-29 record in his three years at his alma mater, he has no doubt gotten the consistency he has craved, but now the transition becomes more noticeable than ever as each of the Pirates' four leading scorers must be replaced with a younger core that is eager to not only make strides, but uphold the winning culture that has permeated South Orange.

"We want to establish ourselves as a top program in the country, and I think we have done that," Bozzella admitted as he and Seton Hall gear up for a trip to Canada next week, a journey that will bring much-needed experience for the youthful contingent he brings onto the hardwood. "With that being said, this year, we're going to go with a lot of youth, and we're excited about it because we've had some very talented players come in and some of the other players that were freshmen or sophomores last year sat behind, and they have great opportunities this year."

On paper, the task of replacing the likes of all-time leading scorer Tabatha Richardson-Smith, the two-headed point guard monster of Shakena Richardson and Aleesha Powell, and the rebounding prowess of Tiffany Jones would seem insurmountable to the average program. Yet with Bozzella's natural gift for developing players to where each one exceeds projections in some way, shape, or form, the infectious optimism he possesses in seeing this process through is more than validated, and perhaps none more so than the breakout season he feels sophomore guard LaTecia Smith is on the precipice of.

"She came in as a Top 100 point guard in high school, but she's also played a year of college basketball in our system," he said of Smith, who now assumes the reins of Seton Hall's uptempo offense in the wake of Richardson and Powell having graduated. "She's learned a lot, she's really continued to develop her leadership skills and to her credit, she stayed up here all summer. She spent the entire summer working on her game with my coaching staff, and I give her credit for it. She wants to be the best she can be, and I do feel she will become not only one of the best point guards in the league, but also in the country. I wouldn't want anyone else to run our team right now."

RELATED: Seton Hall women's basketball releases non-conference schedule

Smith, as well as a class of six freshmen and three sophomores, will benefit most from the Pirates' upcoming voyage to Canada, which begins when the team leaves on Saturday and plays five games between August 9 and 13 against top Canadian collegiate programs in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

"We sat down and we said, 'how can we get better?,' said Bozzella when discussing strategy to get playing time for his younger roster. "This was a possibility, and we said 'let's go for it.' It's a great opportunity for the girls to get five games in and get another week of practice. Obviously, they're playing a lot now, but putting on a uniform, going out there and playing different teams with officials at the college level, it's different. And the reason why we chose Canada is that the level of basketball would be far superior than playing in Europe right now, because you get a lot of club teams and with the Olympics, a lot of the better players aren't playing."

"We want to teach them everything from running on the floor to how to take a play while we're calling it out," he said. "We want them to be ready for that. Those are some of the things that I think will be great for us."

In a Big East whose complexion has changed with several other upper-echelon teams losing some of their best players, Seton Hall is not the only program that is retooling. Moreover, the opportunity remains very promising to surprise some critics, something the Pirates have managed to do in each of the past three seasons, earning a reputation for outperforming their expectations. With that said, Bozzella is realistic in his assessment of this team now, admitting that they would be picked toward the bottom of the league based on experience, but also boldly asserting that such sentiment would change over the course of the year.

"Our success is not just measured in wins, it's also the improvement every year in each position," he said. "As we approach this season, the rest of the league has more experience. They should be picked far higher than us. Ultimately, pick us where you want, but will we finish at the bottom? Absolutely not. These kids have a lot of drive, and obviously a lot of talent. We're going to prepare them the best we can, and come January and February, we're going to be a lot better of a team than we are in November and December."

"This year is the foundation," Bozzella affirmed. "Canada starts it, the preseason, the non-league games, all of that. I can tell you, this team will be a very good team by the end of the year."

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