SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – On Tuesday night, Seton Hall women’s basketball head coach Tony Bozzella was one of 1,655 in Walsh Gymnasium for the men’s basketball team’s 89-49 win over Wagner; an inconspicuous spectator on the stage behind the banner side-basket, only a few hours after his own team beat Wagner, 95-40.
The last time he was on that stage in the public eye, March 14, his eighth-seeded team had just been eliminated from the WNIT after a listless showing against ninth-seeded Saint Joseph’s. At the podium, he declared that his goal was to be where the men’s team was, on the eve of an NCAA Tournament first-round game.
That vision could not be realized in early November, but Bozzella got as close as he could on the inaugural night of the season, watching Kevin Willard’s team outclass the Seahawks just like his team had done earlier that afternoon. The scene was fitting, considering how both programs are united by more than their name and opening day venue.
In both preseason polls, Big East coaches predicted an identical fate for Willard and Bozzella: eighth place. In the case of Willard, the low projection was the result of uncertainty, following the departure of a Mount Rushmore class of seniors. In the case of Bozzella, it was the consequence of back-to-back losing seasons in-conference.
The journey toward this similarity – which both teams believe can be proved wrong come March – began when the two sides seemed so far apart, in the aftermath of that WNIT defeat in Walsh. It was at the podium that night when Bozzella made a bold statement about his vision for the future.
“I thought this program had made a step forward, and after today I’m going to need a couple days to step back and really make some decisions that are going to be very difficult; on how we play, what we do, and how we run our program,” Bozzella said at the time.
His remarks were passionate, but not emotional. As he entered his sixth season as Seton Hall head coach, Bozzella followed through on those remarks. His reward was an epiphany, the likes of which promises to pull him out of a three-year rebuild.
“We had a long talk at the end of the year, me and my recruiting coordinator, one about recruiting,” Bozzella said. “And she’s like, Coach B, at Iona we had a system. When we started here, we had a system. And now, we continually change the system a lot.
“She’s like, if we’re going to be successful, we need to start recruiting to a system, a little more than just trying to get good players and changing the system every year.”
The resulting system entails a relentless up-and-down the court style of play, tailored to the small, athletic, three-point shooting guards and versatile stretch forwards that make up Bozzella’s team.
“We’ve got to make it a 94-foot game,” Bozzella said. “Not a 47-foot or a 65-foot game; we’ve got to make it 94 feet. And it’s hard. Everyone is like, ‘Oh, it’s great,’ but it’s not easy to run.”
Instead of a 30-second shot clock, the team practices with an 18-second clock. Returning players such as Inja Butina, Nicole Jimenez, Shadeen Samuels and Kaity Healy, along with Victoria Cardaci – who sat out last year following a transfer from Clemson – have been catalysts in the preseason and start of the campaign.
Cardaci, who led the team with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting from three on Tuesday afternoon, was a rare transfer addition for Bozzella, who struggled on both the recruiting and transfer market in recent years without a concrete style. The change in philosophy is something he and his staff believe will make the program more attractive in the long-term.
Another transfer, Desiree Elmore from Syracuse, makes up part of a frontcourt that can help add a second layer to Bozzella’s primarily speed-oriented team. Returning players Shadeen Samuels, Selena Philoxy and Kimi Evans, combined with freshmen Femi Funeus and Whitney Howell, promise to improve a team that finished bottom of the conference in defensive rebounding percentage last year.
“I don’t think we’re an eighth place team,” assistant coach Lauren DeFalco said. “Does that mean we’re going to be a third-place team? I think we finish anywhere from eighth to third-place, I do. It just depends on if we stay healthy, depends on how we get better defensively; that’s a huge thing, because we can’t just outscore opponents in the Big East.”
Meanwhile, Willard had a similar conundrum to solve this summer. In the last two seasons, his teams lost a key trait that led to the 2016 Big East Tournament title: turnover creation. Entering his ninth season as Seton Hall head coach, Willard recognized that he needed his players to create offense through their defense once again.
“More than anything, we’ve kind of got back to the way we were doing things, that group sophomore year,” Willard said. “We had more depth that year, because of Derrick [Gordon]. We had Derrick, Mike [Nzei], Ish [Sanogo], Angel [Delgado]. We played nine guys, technically.
“So, I wasn’t so worried about Angel getting in foul trouble, Desi getting in foul trouble – not that I’m not worried about guys getting in foul trouble. But when you have confidence in someone maybe coming in from behind, you can be more aggressive. When you don’t have that depth, you can’t be aggressive.”
Remarkably, despite the loss of four starters, Willard foresees his 2018-19 team being deeper than that 2015-16 team that played nine deep and cut down the Madison Square Garden nets.
On Tuesday night, nine players totaled 16 or more minutes, including true freshman point guard Anthony Nelson, a player who has garnered immense praise early on.
“He’s able to pick up schemes, ideas, concepts, much quicker than any freshman I’ve been around,” Willard said. “He just has a great feel for the game. And so, he doesn’t struggle with what kind of concept we’re trying to do, because he’s not worried about – he understands the concepts, so he can just play.
“Most freshmen are still trying to think what am I supposed to do on this, what am I supposed to do on that? And then, they try to play and they can’t play.”
Nelson’s former AAU teammate and fellow freshman Jared Rhoden was one of five Pirates to swat away a shot in the season opener. The 6-foot-6 forward is part of a salivating frontcourt that combines to make Willard’s longest and tallest roster to date.
“I think the front line, you’re not so dependent on one person,” Willard said. “We used to call it the wheel zone, try to keep everybody out of the paint to try to help the big fella make sure he didn’t get in foul trouble. Because, after him, there was nobody.
“I think, this year, we’re not going to be so dependent on him having to get the basketball to score, and for him to create points. Because, again, he touched the ball just about as much as anybody.”
With a blend of energetic perimeter players and shot-blocking presences in the paint, Willard expects his defense to improve and his offense to become more efficient. It is a similar formula to what his former Iona counterpart hopes will carry the women’s program back to the NCAA Tournament following a two-year hiatus.
When both teams went dancing in 2016, Bozzella’s squad was in its twilight with two seniors and three fifth-year players, while Willard’s was coming into its dawn with five sophomore starters. This season, both programs are surging in the same direction, at the same altitude. Each projected eighth, both have the tools and blueprint to shock their competition in 2019.
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.