Seton Hall makes its first trip to the Cancun Challenge in 2015. The Pirates will take on NC State and Northern Iowa in their two games at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya.
Most college basketball coaches would be crying a river if they were in Anthony Bozzella’s shoes this season, but the third-year Seton Hall women’s coach is feeling an ocean of calm despite the challenges ahead.
More than 50 points per game from his 2014-15 roster is out the door, a profound hit for a program that went 28-6 on the season and claimed Seton Hall’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1995. That set a school record for victories and elevated the buzz around Bozzella, who got the team into the postseason WNIT in 2013-14 for the first Pirates postseason bid in seven years.
The thought of not losing ground after all that hard-earned progress is something driving the players and coaching staff – it’s a unifying notion when everyone is trying to figure out how to work together as smoothly as that last, established group.
“One of the things we’re proud of is that this is a program that can develop. We want to have a lot of good players graduate because that means you’ve had good players,” said Bozzella, who came to Seton Hall after 11 years rebuilding the program at Iona. “When we took over, we had good players in a poor system, so it worked for us to run our system on the very first day.
“What we need to do now is to make sure the talent level is equal to what we had before, because we’ve lost a lot of players. It’s been a challenge this preseason with seven new kids, and they’ve had to deal with all the conditioning we emphasize, and a lot of running. But with the individual work they had to put in, which is a significant amount, we’ve definitely seen the improvement.”
If reconfiguring his lineup is no saga, it’s probably because Bozzella knows what a real drama looks like. When he started at Iona, the Gaels had a streak of 20 straight losing seasons, and his first year was a 1-27 character test on every level. Heck, even his first year (2013-14) at Seton Hall required a lot of patience as he replaced Hall of Famer Anne Donovan and dealt with a lot of eye-rolling as he incorporated his scheme.
He’s got two cornerstones for the season ahead, at minimum. Tabatha Richardson-Smith averaged 17.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a junior last season, fulfilling her promise in everything from 3-point shooting (a strong .375 mark) to defense (79 steals, two off the team lead). Also expected to provide stability is Iona transfer Aleesha Powell, a senior who was recruited by Bozzella at his previous post.
“Tabatha is the best scorer I’ve ever coached. At 6-1, she can do so many things, is a tremendous athlete, and a very talented rebounder,” Bozzella said. “Contributing in more ways is something she wants to do, and she’s prepared to take the bull by the horns – she’s already developed her game as one of the top scorers around, but she want to be one of the top players.”
“I know I’m going to get face-guarded a lot. I’ve been working more off screens, do some more ball-handling, work in some pull-ups,” Richardson-Smith said. “I want to create more space for myself, get to the basket, use some floaters. I think my shooting overall will go up, but not necessarily 3-pointers. I don’t want to limit myself.
“Leadership is another important role this year. I want to be more vocal; we’ve got a lot of new people, and I want to tell them, ‘this is going to happen,’ because I’ve already experienced it. I don’t want to let them get hit by it in their first game. You just want to be ready to help everyone out there, because you never know who’s going to come off the bench some game and have to hit a free throw to win it.”
Powell started 65 games in her three years with the Gaels and gives Seton Hall an immediate asset at point guard, which is a huge topic after the departures of first-team Big East stars Daisha Simmons and Ka-Deidre Simmons. Able to hit the 3-pointer and solid at the free-throw line, Powell will be in heavy rotation.
“It was very hard to sit out (last year as a transfer), because I’m a competitor, but I was able to practice every day,” Powell said. “That allowed me to work on my game against a lot of good players, and I put a lot of time in on my ball-handling, pull-ups and passing. Those times helped me get better defensively as well. It definitely was all mental. If I came in prepared and understood practice was my opportunity to improve, I was able to stay sharp. It really was a mental thing, being prepared every day.”
The Pirates will look to 6-3 center Tiffany Jones for some extra punch in the middle as she starts her second full year with the program. And when Powell needs a breather or if Bozzella wants to go small, the team has graduate student Shakena Richardson, who played for Florida State and wanted to use her final year of eligibility to play in New Jersey, her home state. Freshman guard LaTecia Smith joins the group as a top 100 recruit, someone who was well below the radar earlier in high school.
Bozzella credits assistant coach Lauren DeFalco for that one – she went to a recruiting event while Bozzella was waiting for another to begin, and that’s where she saw Smith play. Seton Hall was well ahead on the recruiting process by the time Smith’s profile exploded as a senior in high school.
With all the work ahead, Richardson-Smith and Powell don’t feel distracted by the fact their college careers are drawing to a close. There may be a professional check to draw somewhere, someday, but being part of Bozzella’s resurrection process is entertaining, to say the least.
“He’s pretty much the same guy. Our relationship has definitely grown. We’ve all had to step it up here,” Powell said. “It’s definitely excitement, and there are no bittersweet feelings. It’s my last year, and I’m going to go out with a bang and be ready to help my team. I think about playing freely, playing my game. If I’m open, I’ll do something with that, take what the defense gives me.”
“I’m excited. You always think about what’s coming next, but I’m always trying to live in the moment,” Richardson-Smith added. “We’ve had a great team, but I think we can be even better, because we’ve got players here who can definitely help us. We have to find four starters, but I’m not worried about it at all.
“There’s nothing anyone can say (bad) about Coach or how he does things, with the success he’s had. He brings intensity, and he does it because he loves it, not because he gets paid. He’s a positive man, and he does everything he can to keep things on track.”