In his first season, new Seton Hall women’s basketball coach Tony Bozzella had to earn respect, and it did not come easy. Having not achieved a postseason berth in seven years, the original expectations for Bozzella’s team were not high after the Pirates were picked to finish 10th in the Big East.
“I didn’t feel like I earned that respect with my players until the NIT berth,” Bozzella said. “Getting the entire team to buy in to my system after a hard transition was not easy.”
A milestone year has Bozzella gaining more than respect from his own players. “The program has gained positive attention,” he said. The Pirates, coming off their first 20-win season since 1994-95, have five newcomers to the program and received some fortunate news from the NCAA rules with forward Janee Johnson gaining a sixth and final year of eligibility. Along with the fact that the blue and white return three All-Big East honorees from a season ago, the bar is set high.
Before a 91-79 double overtime loss to Rutgers in the WNIT Sweet 16, the Pirates surpassed their conference win total from the past four seasons combined with nine. “Coming off a winning season and showing that our fast-paced style can work, it will be much easier in the preseason,” Bozzella said. “Going through things for the first time will not have to happen again. My expectations are my players’ expecations. We’re on the same page.”
Those expectations will not be a cruise ride with a deeper non-conference schedule and a more challenging conference alignment of games. The Hall returns to invitational action to start the 2014-15 campaign with the Preseason WNIT after extending their season to 34 games last spring, which is the most games for the Pirates since 1978-79. “Getting into the Preseason WNIT is a wonderful opportunity,” Bozzella said. After opening up with Rider, the Pirates will face either West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky. The Mountaineers were the runner-up in the Big 12 Tournament just a season ago and that could be their first match-up with SHU since 2012, when both were in the Big East. The tournament is designed to give a team a minimum of three contests. Nine of the 16 teams in the invitational are coming off postseason appearances. The last time the Pirates were in the tournament was the inaugural year for the WNIT in 1994.
The Hall will only have one road non-conference game. The match-up, which is the first in a home-and-home series, pairs Bozzella with a friend in Stephanie Gaitley, who comes off a 2013-14 season that saw the Rams compile 25 wins, their third-highest win total in program history.
The Pirates will once again host the Seton Hall Thanksgiving Tournament following the holiday. After facing St. Peter’s, SHU will either take on St. Francis (NY) or St. Joe’s on the second day. Other schedule highlights include home contests against Illinois and Georgia.
An improved schedule also brings an improved locker room. “I think this entire roster is now fully committed toward what our program is aiming for,” Bozzella said.
Breanna Jones ended her career with her last year of eligibility coming in 2013-14, but there are also those players that will not be returning. Junior guard Alexis Brown, who averaged over 11 points and five boards per game, is off the team due to a violation of team academic rules. While Brown was the second primary ball-handler when Ka-Deidre Simmons was not in, Bozzella does believe his backcourt will be ok. After appearing in all 31 games as a freshman and scoring in double-figures nine times in her sophomore season at La Salle, guard Jordan Mosley looks to make her debut in a blue and white uniform. Tara Inman will also be back after averaging over 12 minutes per game last season.
Recruited by programs in the PAC 12 and ACC, Claire Lundberg is a versatile perimeter player that will be added into the rotation for The Hall. “She has the potential to give a nice boost to our shooting percentage,” Bozzella said. A season ago, the Pirates shot just over 30 percent from beyond the arc. In her sophomore year, Lundberg was part of a Minnesota Section 7AAAA state championship, pouring in 22 points in the title game victory for Anoka High School in Minnesota. In her junior year, the sharpshooter went nearly 40 percent from deep while averaging nearly 13 per game. “With what our athletic director Pat Lyons has done with facilities, it’s drawn athletes like Claire to looking at Seton Hall seriously,” Bozzella said.
In the frontcourt, Bozzella adds Jordan Molyneaux, the No. 16 prep forward in the country according to ESPN. Bozzella is impressed with her on the defensive end and Molyneaux possesses the athleticism to run the floor.
While Ka-Deidre Simmons is the clear leader of The Hall and “has exceeded expectations” of the coaching staff according to Bozzella, he is looking to see new addition Tiffany Jones make an impact from the get-go. On top of having Johnson back, who averaged more than seven points and five boards per game last season, Bozzella is looking for Jones to deliver in the starting line-up. “What separates Tiffany from other players that I have seen in the past is that she is not afraid to put up a shot with a hand in the face,” Bozzella said. “She can hit the tough shots, and we need that in the post. We’re set in the backcourt with two of the top five players in the conference with Simmons and Tab (Richardson-Smith). We need those buckets down low that aren’t always easy.” Jones has two years of eligibility and will be immediately eligible. She comes from ASA where she averaged roughly 12 points and 12 rebounds per contest. On top of her already-stellar college days, Jones was a co-New York State Player of the Year. She is rated as the No. 7 national junior college prospect by the Dan Olson Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. While Jones is immediately eligible, transfers Aleesha Powell from Iona and Lubirdia Gordon of West Virginia, will have to sit out a year in game action. Powell is just a 5-foot-6 guard, while Gordon is at the other side of the spectrum at 6-foot-4.
As far as league play goes, Bozzella is not as happy with the way the scheduling will go this season. The Big East will continue round robin scheduling as the Pirates will face each of the nine other teams twice in the season. But, it’s the alignment of the conference slate that Bozzella thinks will make travel tough. In women’s basketball, there will not be midweek match-ups this season. Teams will no longer travel and stay home in conference play in the same week. Games will be played on Friday’s and Sunday’s. “The tough part about it for teams like St. John’s and us is that the trips to the Midwest can be extensive,” Bozzella said. “It’s not tough for teams to make a trip to Queens and South Orange in the same weekend, but for us to have to go to Creighton and then fly to Providence in the same weekend could be the kind of situation that we now have to face.” While Bozzella is not a fan of the scheduling, he likes the league. “It is extremely competitive,” he said. “While we are a new Big East, I do like the landscape and I think we’re in a nice spot to start, one that is similar to when the league started in 1979, but I think we’re in an even better place.”
Bozzella attributes the recruiting success to his assistants Lauren DeFalco, Stephanie Del Preore, Tiffany Jones-Smart, and Marissa Flagg. “Without them, our first 20-win season in nearly 20 years would not be anywhere near possible,” Bozzella said. The staff will have one change after Director of Basketball Operations Tim Gardner took an assistant job at Iona.
“I do think we need to get 12 to 13 wins in the conference this upcoming season to have a shot at an at-large berth in the Big East,” Bozzella said. “But the ladies know that. I’m not going to hide what I want to see from them.”
When looking at an early starting five for the upcoming season, Bozzella said that on top of Simmons and Richardson-Smith in the backcourt, Tiffany Jones can play the wing with Johnson and Bra’Shey Ali (9.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg in 2013-14) down low. But he also said he could see Mosley playing a wing in a smaller line-up. “It will be more than just about our starters, though,” he added. “Whether it’s Tara Inman, Theresa Kucera, or whoever, the bench has to raise the level of play, especially with a tasking conference slate.
Bozzella’s staff is still on the recruiting path, one that in women’s basketball has drawn some buzz in the metro area. “I have heard that Seton Hall has caught a bad wrap with players because of some other teams’ comments on us,” Bozzella said. “Personally, I look at that as a way to get motivated, and I know what level our program is at and where we need to be.”
In making one guarantee for the upcoming season, Bozzella kept it simple: “We won’t ever go away in games. Our level of competition is what excites me.” The Pirates open the season on November 7 against Rider at 12 p.m. ET.
John Fanta can be reached at email@example.com or @John_Fanta on twitter. For full coverage of Seton Hall athletics, follow @SetonianSports.