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2021-22 Big East Women’s Basketball Team Preview: Seton Hall Pirates

Can the Pirates challenge for an NCAA tournament berth this season?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Seton Hall at Connecticut
Can Andra Espinoza-Hunter guide the Pirates back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016?
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Seton Hall Pirates

2020-21 Record: 14-7, 12-5 Big East

2020-21 Big East Finish: Third, two games behind Marquette in the win column, one back in the loss column.

Final 2020-21 Her Hoop Stats Ranking: #68

Postseason? Their upset loss to Creighton in the Big East tournament quarterfinals ended their season, although I’m pretty sure that means they declined a WNIT berth as opposed to not being invited. After all, the Bluejays ended up in the WNIT with a much worse record.

Key Departures: The Pirates have lost three people from last season’s regular rotation. The big one is Desiree Elmore, who started in 17 of the 19 games that she appeared in while logging over 31 minutes a night when she was in action. Her 17.4 points per game were third best on the team, while her 3.3 assists were second. The big loss from Elmore is her rebounds, as the 5’10” guard from Connecticut led the team with 9.1 per game.

Alexia Allesch and Jasmine Smith are the other two rotation figures who are gone now. The 6’1” Allesch is probably the bigger loss between the two. 18 appearances, 18 starts, 23 minutes a night gets you there over Smith’s 16 appearances and just two starts. Neither Allesch (4.3) nor Smith (4.0) did much in the regular scoring department for the Pirates, but Allesch was third on the team in rebounding at 5.0 per game. Smith added 2.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists per night in 18 minutes.

Key Returners: You could make a pretty decent starting five for the Pirates out of their five returning rotation players. As you probably figured out from the mention of Elmore as the #3 scorer, SHU returns their top two in Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Lauren Park-Lane. When you’re bringing back two scorers north of 17 points a game, you’re probably doing pretty well for yourself. You get the added bonus of 6.1 rebounds per game from Espinoza-Hunter, which was second on the team last year, and a team high 5.4 assists from Park-Lane. FUN FACT: Lauren Park-Lane ranked #77 in the country in assist rate last season. Think that might be helpful to have out on the court again this season?

The Pirates also bring back Mya Jackson, a 5’7” guard who rounds out the list of returning double-digit scorers at 10.6 per game. Jackson’s 28.6 minutes per game last season were a steadying influence on Seton Hall as she was the only woman to start all 21 games and one of just two to play in every single game. She was also Seton Hall’s best three-point option at nearly 42%, and she added 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists in her spare time.

With so many Pirates missing a game here and a game there, Mya Bembry’s 21 minutes per night while playing in all 21 games (she’s the other one) led to eight starts along the way. The 6’1” New Jersey native did more on the glass (4.9 per game) than she did going through the rim (4.3 per game), but hey, everyone has a part to play. Amari Wright rounds out the rotation players on the roster from last season as she appeared in 20 of 21 games and got 11.5 minutes of run on average. 2.9 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.0 assists aren’t all that much, but that’s the kind of numbers you get in 12 minutes a game, too.

I want to mention Curtessia Dean real quick here even though she didn’t play for Seton Hall last season due to injury. The 5’10” Louisiana native was a two-time junior college All-American before making the move to South Orange and averaged 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.6 steals. No idea if there was a big plan for her last season before her injury, but she’s been around the program for a whole year already.

Key Additions: There are no freshmen on the Seton Hall roster this season. We’ll see how that impacts the Pirates down the road, but for now, this means that this is a highly experienced team.

Seton Hall does have three new faces on the roster, though. Katie Armstrong is a 6’2” guard/forward who started her collegiate career at St. Joseph’s before transferring to Fairfield for three seasons. She averaged 10.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last year and earned All-MAAC Second Team honors for the second straight campaign. Like Armstrong, this is the third collegiate stop for Sidney Cooks, a 6’4” forward/center. She spent two years at Michigan State before transferring to Mississippi State for a year. Cooks averaged 6.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.3 rebounds while starting in 15 of 19 games and thanks to the NCAA’s COVID relief policies, she is a college grad with two years of eligibility remaining if she wants it. Finally, Ariel Cummings arrives at SHU after appearing in nine games for West Virginia last season. This is the fourth year of college basketball for the 6’3” forward from Ohio as she started out with two years at Chipola in the junior college ranks. As you’d guess, she was pretty good at Chipola (14.5 points, 11.4 rebounds in 2019-20) but that never materialized into playing time with the Mountaineers.

Coach: Tony Bozzella, entering his 22st season as a head coach in Division 1 and ninth season at Seton Hall. He has a record of 127-99 with the Pirates, 313-313 in Division 1, and 433-417 as a collegiate head coach.

Outlook: I hope you generated the idea that I’m pretty positive about where Seton Hall is going this season from the parts of this runthrough that you’ve already read. I felt pretty good about Seton Hall last season, and that turned into a third place finish in the league when things were said and done.

Last year, Seton Hall was dealing with the departures of their top two scorers and still ended up doing pretty well for themselves. This year, they bring back their top two scorers in the two hyphenates, which means continuity for Bozzella and his staff will be a little bit easier. When you know where your points are coming from, then everything else gets a little bit easier to figure out. The fact that Espinoza-Hunter and Park-Lane both do more than just score for the Pirates goes a long way towards keeping everything stabilized as Seton Hall goes from last season.

The big question for Seton Hall’s ceiling is how they figure out everything else. Losing Elmore, Allesch, and Smith from the eight woman every night rotation is a pretty sizable chunk of minutes not to mention points and rebounds and so forth. There are other women returning from last year who will be familiar with the way that Bozzella wants his team to play, but we don’t know how much they can actually contribute since they weren’t asked to last season. There’s also the question of what the three experienced transfers can give to the team. Immediately, all three provide size on the roster with the 6’2” Armstrong coming in as the shortest of the trio and they are the three tallest women on the roster. You can easily see how at least one of them could end up installed as the Allesch replacement in the rotation, and having multiple options in that department isn’t the worst thing in the world.

If the Pirates want to have an NCAA tournament bid in their sights — it would be their first since 2016 — they’re going to have to be better defensively. They came in at #110 in terms of overall defensive ranking according to Her Hoop Stats’ metric, and they were sub-100 because of a near complete inability to defend two point attempts. They ranked #316 out of 343 teams in that department a year ago, allowing teams to shoot just barely under 50% against them. That ends up ranking them #230 in effective field goal percentage, but that’s largely because Seton Hall lucked into incredibly great three-point shooting defense.

One thing that they need to keep doing is defending without fouling. Seton Hall ranked #19 in the country in defensive free throw rate last season, which was really good news since teams hit 75% of their freebies against the Pirates. That was one of the 30 worst defensive free throw shooting percentages in the country, and that’s one of those things that’s just absolutely backbreaking to a defense. There’s literally nothing you can do to control that shooting percentage, and when you’re bad at it, it’s just points that are going up on the scoreboard with the clock stopped and you have to just watch it happen. But like I said, Seton Hall stopped the shots from happening really well last season, and that’s a good building block for improvement overall this year.