Three years and two NCAA Tournament appearances later, Tony Bozzella starts again with a younger Seton Hall team, one he hopes will develop Pirates' trademark consistent success. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
Tony Bozzella is no stranger to turning a program around, having done it at three different places before his latest reclamation project at Seton Hall has resulted in 71 wins and three postseason appearances in as many seasons, including a pair of NCAA Tournament berths in the past two.
But one thing the charismatic coach also is reputed for is being an optimistic realist, one who is always hopeful for the best possible outcome for his team, yet simultaneously recognizing the work that needs to be done to improve in several key areas.
Such is the case this season as Bozzella's Pirates prepare to open the curtain on the 2016-17 campaign Friday morning, welcoming Savannah State to Walsh Gymnasium for an 11 a.m. tipoff. This year's Seton Hall team loses four starters and all-time leading scorer Tabatha Richardson-Smith, so while the new faces will be noticed quickly, the goal in South Orange is to maintain the same level of consistency to mitigate the roster makeover.
"We need consistency," Bozzella adamantly stated, similar to his offseason assessment a year ago before Seton Hall embarked upon their third consecutive 20-win season. "We'll have half a practice and be great, and then another half look like high school kids. I don't mean that as a negative, we just haven't played up to the speed and the toughness and the level we have to play in any Division I game."
"Savannah State, although they're not a big name, they return four of their starters and they played us well here a couple of years ago," he elaborated. "We're going to have to really get consistent, otherwise we're going to struggle."
Picked seventh in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, a standing Bozzella openly admitted may have been enhanced by the reputation he and his staff have developed for being instant winners, the retooled Seton Hall squad had the benefit of an August trip to Canada; which was not only vital for getting game experience for a number of the younger players, but also a journey that expedited the need to put together a steady 40 minutes.
"It was very important, it was very good," he said of the trek north of the border. "We needed it. We played an offense there that we found wasn't conducive to the players we have. We had to change it, and it was great because if not, we'd be running that old offense here and we'd be dead. I think we're going to have a little more success this year, and that's really helped us."
At the center of the efforts for the Pirates this year will be the latest in what has become a rich line of transfers, guard JaQuan Jackson. The Louisiana Tech expatriate, who possesses the dynamic scoring ability Richardson-Smith demonstrated the past four years, stole the show with 31 points on 12-for-20 shooting in Seton Hall's 80-54 exhibition victory last Saturday, and comes into game competition lauded for her pure offensive prowess.
"She brings so much," said Bozzella of Jackson, a Texas native. "She's really taken the challenge of playing against Shakena (Richardson) and Aleesha (Powell) every day and seeing what they bring in practice, and she's been not only our best player, but our hardest worker and when that happens, you're going to have a lot of success. I think she's going to have a very good year."
The pressure to succeed is magnified considering how the injury bug has ravaged Seton Hall leading up to the opener. While forward Lubirdia Gordon is starting to return to form after missing some of the offseason, sophomore Martha Kuderer; the Pirates' second-leading scorer in Canada who was expected to be an integral part of the offense, is out indefinitely with a foot injury, forcing Bozzella to be more creative in the early part of the season. In addition to playing through adversity, the fourth-year coach has some other basic goals for his team through the non-conference portion of the schedule.
"I just want them to play together and get some confidence," he revealed. "Not just confidence, but also understanding the way we want to play. Now for the first six or seven games, we're not going to play with a full team, let alone a team that's inexperienced. I want us just to learn to play together, and learn play the Seton Hall way."