Tony Bozzella retooled at Seton Hall last season following second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and is poised to bring Pirates back to postseason for fourth time in his tenure. (Photo by Seton Hall University Athletics)
Last season's 12-19 record was such a change of pace from Tony Bozzella's first three years at Seton Hall that it may as well be considered an anomaly.
After all, the architect of one of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's premier women's basketball programs at Iona wasted little time turning his alma mater into an equally formidable outfit, advancing to the WNIT quarterfinals in his first season at the helm before taking the Pirates to a pair of NCAA Tournaments. Last year, when leading scorers Tabatha Richardson-Smith, Shakena Richardson, and Aleesha Powell all needed to be replaced, the affable and energetic coach was quick to point out that not only would it be a tall order, but that his team may struggle in the short term.
One year later, Seton Hall is older, wiser, and more experienced; and in a Big East Conference where there are many opportunities for a third team to join the postseason conversation behind consensus league favorites Marquette and DePaul, the Pirates are ready to assume the role of contender once more.
"We have a very talented team," Bozzella assessed of his roster this season, which has undergone somewhat of an overhaul compared to the 2016-17 campaign. "I do think this team has been underpicked, and I understand why. But we do have some great players, a lot of new faces, and a lot of returning faces have gotten a lot better. In my mind, this is one of the most complete teams we've had."
"Last year, we were very inexperienced because of the people we lost," he conceded. "This year's team is much more experienced. The returning players have really done a great job of improving their game. They're all considerably better than what they were, so I think with the six returning players and the seven new players, we have as complete a team as we've had in my five years here."
With a pair of fifth-year seniors leading the way, the experience that has been abundant in many of Bozzella's teams wherever he has patrolled the sidelines is once again prevalent. Most fans will remember JaQuan Jackson from her exploits last year as the Pirates' leading scorer, but incoming graduate transfer Donnaizha Fountain promises to be the latest in what has turned into a successful one-year pipeline for the premier player developer in the Big East.
"She's got a lot of ability," Bozzella said of Fountain, a six-foot wing from Temple who joins the aforementioned Richardson, as well as Daisha Simmons, in players that have come to South Orange with a degree in tow to complete their college careers. "She brings confidence to our team, which is something we needed. We didn't have that last year because of our youth. She's an experienced player that's played at a high level, and I believe she's here to make a mark and continue the tradition that we've established here at Seton Hall."
Fountain headlines a quartet of newcomers with experience, along with junior college arrivals Nicole Jimenez and Inja Butina, with Taylor Brown eligible this year after sitting out following her transfer from Western Kentucky. Bozzella expects all four to not only make an impact, but be integral parts of the rotation from the opening tip Friday against Saint Peter's through the conference tournament in March, and perhaps beyond.
"I think Nicole and Inja have brought a sense of toughness and competitiveness," he said of his two junior guards, the former from Miami, the latter by way of Croatia. "These kids are two of the best kids I've ever coached because of how hard they try each and every day. Everyone's like, 'we try hard,' but no one has tried harder than these two kids in my 25 years. They're tremendous competitors." Of Brown, a six-foot redshirt sophomore forward, Bozzella was equally as effusive, lauding the product of Paterson's Eastside High for her strength and athleticism.
"She's improved a lot," he said. "She shoots the ball well, she's really expanded her game from what it was when she came into our program. I'm looking for big things from Taylor and I know we're going to get them. I know she'll be one of the better players in the Big East, I do believe that."
No Bozzella team is complete without a warrior for a point guard, and sophomore Kaela Hilaire reprises that role for the Pirates this year. A greater success story in her rookie season than most had initially envisioned, the Floral Park native heads into her second campaign with a full year under her belt, and in typical Bozzella fashion, a multifaceted weapon in Seton Hall's line of attack.
"To her credit, she worked hard during the offseason," Bozzella stressed when discussing Hilaire's improvement. "Marissa (Flagg) and Lauren (DeFalco, two of Bozzella's assistants) have done a great job with her. She wants to get better, she wants to be more consistent. I think if KK can play more consistently, we're going to have not one of the best teams in the Big East, but one of the best teams in the country. She's that talented."
The depth on this year's squad, which also includes incumbents Deja Winters, Shadeen Samuels and Jayla Jones-Pack in a rotation that the coach has stressed could feature as many as nine different players in the starting lineup over the course of the season, is so rich to where Jackson, who was the catalyst for the Seton Hall offense last year, was described by Bozzella as having been competing for a starting spot, which is more a credit to the talent that surrounds her than a sign that she may be regressing. With that comes the lofty expectations that are set by the program on an annual basis, goals that have not been lowered despite the adjustments and adversity that came to define last year's results.
"We hold ourselves to a high standard here," Bozzella proclaimed. "For us to get it back to that level and exceed it was, in some ways, was a tribute to the players we had in our program, players that we inherited from Coach (Anne) Donovan that continued to develop, and then players that we brought in ourselves. We're a family at Seton Hall, and we do have standards. Unfortunately, each year is different, and last year probably wasn't at the standard the players wanted as much as I wanted. But we've turned that into a positive."
"We have 13 kids that can step on the floor and be contributing Big East players right away," he said. "Our two freshmen (forwards Selena Philoxy and Kimi Evans) have acclimated themselves well and our 11 returning kids all have experience playing at the college level. I have, top to bottom, my most experienced and talented team that I've had."