Peruse the current Northeast Conference basketball standings and you’ll find an unfamiliar team near the top. The Bryant Bulldogs, in their first season as a full-time Division I program, have turned some heads by winning six of their first ten games. It doesn’t sound like much, until you realize the Bulldogs have already tripled their win total from all of last season, when they finished at the bottom of the conference with an unsightly 2-28 record.
Most of the key players have returned from that last place club. There’s fifth year senior leader Frankie Dobbs and his excellent assist to turnover ratio. There are juniors Alex Francis and Corey Maynard who when healthy serve as consistent scoring threats both inside and out. Yet, perhaps the biggest reason for Bryant’s early season success may be the addition of sophomore transfer Dyami Starks.
In the early going, Starks has taken the conference by storm with his uncanny ability to knock down the long-range jumper. Through ten games, Starks already finds himself in the top six of the NEC with 16.6 points per game and 27 three-pointers made. It was the sophomore’s 17 points – and more importantly his clutch play late – that helped fuel the biggest triumph in Bryant’s young history when they knocked off ACC foe Boston College, 56-54. The upset sent shock waves across the Northeast, injected anger into the BC Eagle message boards, and brought desirable attention to Bryant and their newest sharp shooter.
When asked about the team’s early season success, Starks reflects on the past month and a half with a smile. “It’s great because we kind of came in under the radar, not many people knew who I was. So that was nice. Then we had a couple of home games, and people were like, ‘Oh who’s this kid, who’s this kid?’ And then we started winning.”
While Starks’ rise into the NEC limelight was unexpected for most, his head coach Tim O’Shea was confident Starks would become a key contributor sooner rather than later.
“I knew that was going to happen all of last year when I saw him in practice everyday,” said O’Shea. “Here’s the thing I didn’t know about Dyami; his work ethic is as good as any kid I’ve ever coached in 30 years. I knew he had talent, I knew he could score the ball, but I didn’t realize he would be as hard a worker as he is. That’s been a real plus for our program.”
As an impact player, Starks has made significant strides in only his second season at the collegiate level. It, however, hasn’t been the smoothest ride out of high school.
During a storied high school career at Duluth East High, which included a 55 point outburst in a game, Starks was riding high as one of Minnesota’s best high school players. Things were going well, so well in fact that the prolific scorer was even courted by BCS programs Iowa State and Minnesota. Despite possible opportunities to play in the Big 10, Starks valued education as much as athletics and wanted to make an impact on the court right away. With that mind, Starks made the decision before his senior season at Duluth East to attend Ivy League program Columbia.
Unfortunately for Starks, Joe Jones – the Columbia coach that recruited Starks – accepted an offer to become Steve Donahue’s associate head coach at Boston College in the offseason before Starks’ arrival at Columbia. Jones’ sudden departure left Starks in a precarious position.
Kyle Smith was hired as Columbia’s next head coach, and things were working out fine at the start. Starks received playing time early on, and produced a few double-digit scoring efforts including a 20 point showing against American University. The minutes though quickly diminished once the Ivy League’s 14 game tournament was underway. Gone were the double-digit scoring displays from the freshman. Instead, Starks was lucky just to get a little playing time. Here was a Mr. Minnesota basketball finalist who had the interest of multiple schools out of high school, and now he was barely logging five minutes a game in the Ivy League.
When asked about it, Starks doesn’t have any ill-will toward what amounted to be a wasted freshman season. “It’s kind of like the luck of the draw. When Coach [Joe] Jones recruited me, he saw me as one role and then when Coach [Kyle] Smith came in, he saw me as a different role. He’s a different coach, new system. It just happened to be that I didn’t fit that system. It’s nothing against the coach, nothing against Columbia. It just was what it was.”
Starks understandably decided to move on from Columbia after his freshman season. And even though a number of schools were once again interested in Starks’ services, the decision was easier than anticipated, thanks to the candor of his soon-to-be head coach.
“[Coach O’Shea] was just a guy who was straight up,” said Starks. “He was the only one who was straight up. All the other coaches – it’s a business, it’s a shrewd business, that’s how I can put it – have to look out for their benefits all the time. Coach O’Shea was like, ‘We’re building. I’m going to be honest with you; you’re going to have to work for your minutes. I think you have potential, you can come in, and we’re trying to do big things.’”
After embarking on an official visit to the Smithfield, Rhode Island campus, Starks decided it was in his best interest to help lead Bryant into Division I basketball. And so far, things could not have been better, for which Starks credits the year he had to sit out as per NCAA transfer rules.
“Sitting out that year was big because it allowed me to work on my game, and I could sit back and watch our team struggle to make plays and I can see myself out there and what I can do. So sitting out really helped my maturity and game.”
The season Starks sat out, to be perfectly candid, was brutal to watch. The team, rife with poor defense and very little depth to speak of, lost 19 games by ten points or more. Yet through the struggles, O’Shea had always envisioned season number five as the year Bryant could potentially turn it around. And it all started by adding a few more pieces, which included his nephew – Holy Cross transfer Joe O’Shea – and, of course, number 12, whom O’Shea has characterized as a special player. Just how special?
“In all my years of coaching, Dyami’s as good a shooter as I’ve seen and I’m talking guys like Preston Murphy, Cuttino Mobley, Troy Bell,” said O’Shea this offseason. “I’m not saying he’s the athlete some of those guys are, but in terms of shooting the ball, he’s as good a shooter as I’ve been around.”
It’s high praise for Starks, who is taking his new role with Bryant all in stride. Together, he and his Bulldog teammates are confident they’ll turn into legitimate contenders of the NEC this season.
“We feel like we’re one of the better teams in the conference,” said Starks. “If we take care of what we can take of, we can beat anybody and that’s how we feel. I think the top four [in the NEC] is our goal. [It's ideal] when you can finish top four in the conference with home court advantage, so that’s our goal hands down.”
This could have been considered crazy talk just ten months ago; when Bryant ended their final season of the Division I transition period with 20 wins in the past four years. But given the non-conference results, the Bryant Bulldogs are poised to shred their label as the conference’s doormat.
And Dyami Starks may just have a little something to do with that.