As Jared Grasso entered his second season as Head Coach at Bryant, most people clued into the Northeast Conference expected an improvement on the Bulldogs' 10-20 (7-11 in NEC play) 2018-19 campaign; they returned the majority of their rotation, plus point guard Ikenna Ndugba was back after being an injury red-shirt, and Grasso brought in highly-regarded recruiting class.
However, there were questions. Primarily, could they defend? In Tim O’Shea’s final season in Smithfield, Bryant had a 120.7 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating, good for 350th (out of 351 D1 teams), and in 2018-19 it wasn’t much better; 115.1 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, which was 343th nationally. It doesn’t matter how good your offense is, if you can’t get stops consistently, there’s no way you can compete for a league title.
Fast forward to mid-December and, well, the results have been more than promising. The Bulldogs currently sit at 6-4 against D-1 competition with wins over Fordham (Atlantic-10), Columbia, Navy, Saint Peter's, Cornell, and Niagara. Oh, and three of their four losses were either by two points (Brown, Rutgers), or in overtime (New Hampshire), and all were away from Smithfield. But it's not just the shiny record, the computers have bought in as well; Kenpom projects Bryant to finish 11-7 in league play (tied for 3rd with LIU), while Torvik has Bryant finishing 12-6 (tied for 2nd with LIU). Per Torvik's "Game Score", Grasso's bunch has the best "performance" of the season of any NEC team (93 Game Score in their 69-44 road win over Saint Peter's, which hammered Fairleigh Dickinson on Wednesday night), and their average Game Score of 49.4 is 2nd highest behind Saint Francis.
So how are they doing it? The Bulldogs are getting stops! Their Adjusted Defensive Efficiency is 102.2, good for 213rd nationally (and 2nd in the Northeast Conference), and they’re holding teams to 30% on threes (and just 44.4% on twos) for an eFG% of 44.6%, which ranks in the top 50 across college basketball.
What's changed? Well, for starters there is much more quickness and depth on the perimeter; only Adam Grant is averaging more than 27 mpg (last year Grant averaged 35.5 mpg, Byron Hawkins chipped in 29.6, and SeBastian Townes averaged 29.1), and the additions of Michael Grant, Charles Pride, and Benson Lin (as well as Ndugba) have paid dividends on the defensive side of the ball. They're getting out on shooters and limiting the number of looks they get from behind the arc (just 35% of their opponents field goal attempts have been from three, which is 99th nationally).
Plus, Jared Grasso now has a rim protector in Hall Elisias, who is averaging 2.7 blocks per game despite averaging just 16.6 mpg. Last season teams shot 58.9% on “close twos”, this year that number is down to 53.4%, which is tops in the NEC (and bound to come down when league play starts).
With the defense significantly improved, there’s not as much pressure on the offense, which has essentially been just as good as it was last season when it finished 4th in the NEC in Offensive Efficiency; their 95.8 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency ratio is down significantly from their 99.5 mark (overall) last year, but offense is down across the board due to the increased distance of the three-point line. When compared to the rest of the country, they’ve had the 262nd best offense (per Kenpom) so far this season, compared to 273rd in 2018-19. And that’s without Bash Townes, who has played in just four games as he battles injuries.
The most impressive thing about Bryant, though, is not the improved defense, nor is it the 6-4 record. It's how they've been able to win:
They’ve won at home (Cornell, Navy, Columbia), and on the road (Saint Peter’s, Niagara, Fordham);
They’ve won close games (67-65 over Columbia, 82-81 over Cornell), and they’ve won blowouts (69-44 over Saint Peter’s, 60-45 over Navy).
They’ve won fast-paced games (75 possessions against Cornell, 73 vs. Niagara), and slow-paced games (58 possessions against Navy).
They’ve won without key players: Charles Pride in the Columbia, Fordham games; Bash Townes in most of the games; and they took New Hampshire to overtime on the road without Ndugba.
They’ve won with offense (scored 1.09ppp against Cornell, 1.03ppp against Navy) and with defense (allowed just 0.62ppp against Saint Peter’s, 0.77ppp against Navy).
Simply put, Jared Grasso has built a roster with a multitude of options that can win in different ways. Every coach wants a point guard, well Grasso has two of them in Ndugba and Michael Green, both of whom have positive A/TO ratios and provide stellar perimeter defense (though neither has shot it well).
Shooting? Adam Grant has already made 34 three-pointers (36%), while Pride (37.5%), Mikail Simmons (33.3%), and Benson Lin (32.7%) have been good from the perimeter.
Rebounding? The Bulldogs rank 101st nationally with a 30.7% offensive rebounding rate thanks to Patrick Harding (14.6% OR%, 2nd in the league) and Hall Elisias (12.2% OR%, 3rd in the NEC). And we’ve already discussed Elisias and his ability to protect the rim.
And don’t forget, there’s a 6’5”, 260 lb. man-child sitting in street clothes who averaged 15.1 ppg and 4.9 rpg last season. How Bash Townes will fit into the rotation, I can’t begin to say. But Jared Grasso has a legitimate 10-man rotation filled with players who provide different skill-sets. The Bulldogs are for real, and have shown they deserve to be in the conversation for an NEC title, and perhaps a first ever trip to the Big Dance.
Block off the evening of January 2nd; that's when Saint Francis heads to Smithfield for both teams' NEC season-opener. That's as must-watch of a game that will occur all season in the Northeast Conference.