In a league with as much parity as the Northeast Conference, sometimes the bounce of a basketball, an official’s subjective call, or an unexpected hot streak can decide an outcome. For the Bryant Bulldogs, that harsh reality unfortunately reared its ugly head in the first round of the NEC tournament.
After a sluggish first half against Saint Francis, Bryant had control of the game midway through the second half with a 49-41 lead. By then, KenPom calculated the Bulldogs as a 97% favorite to finish off a Red Flash team that was 0-9 versus the NEC top five in the regular season. It sure seemed like a slam dunk.
But then, the Bryant rim closed up while the visiting underdogs began their improbable comeback.
“You can almost smell it when you can’t make shots,” Bryant head coach Tim O’Shea said afterwards. “That’s what it comes down to. A team like us is usually going to score 70, 75 points and then all of sudden no one can make a shot and Alex (Francis) starts pressing a little bit. They start to pull a few threes out because they have no pressure. It’s a weird dynamic.”
When the smoke cleared, a successful campaign which included 18 wins and a third place finish in the NEC regular season came crashing down, thanks to the Bulldogs inability to score. And this was despite Bryant possessing the best offensive efficiency numbers (111.3 points per 100 possessions, 54% eFG%) in the conference.
“We obviously had a tough night against Saint Francis, yet it comes down to a single possession and Corey (Maynard) had a good shot,” O’Shea said. “If that goes in, you have new life and go on to play Wagner on the road and who knows what happens.”
As a result, several pundits will overlook Bryant’s remarkable transition into Division I and instead dwell on the Bulldogs 11-12 record in the month of February and March the past two seasons. They’ll forget Bryant’s 37-26 overall record after they could only muster a grand total of 20 victories in O’Shea’s first four seasons at the helm. And much of that progress had to do with the excellent roster the long-time head coach had assembled long before the packed crowds at the Chace Athletic Center.
“You really have to get lucky to be where we are right now,” O’Shea explained. “I mean lucky in the sense that you get an Alex (Francis), get a Joe (O’Shea), get a Dyami (Starks), get a Corey (Maynard), get some guys that can really play to work out and stick with your program. It’s really hard to get where we’re at right now, but our expectations have changed. We want to be – as every team in the league does – the next Robert Morris, a team that can play near the top year in and year out.”
Sustaining their recent success won’t be easy with the departures of Francis and Maynard, yet there’s plenty of firepower returning. After finishing third in the NEC in scoring, Dyami Starks will return for his senior season along with O’Shea’s nephew, Joe, who may be one of the more underrated players in the league. O’Shea’s exceptional offensive efficiency rating of 114.8 and effective field goal percentage of 54% is a good place to start that argument. Shane McLaughlin, the incumbent point guard with Maynard graduated, played well done the stretch, dishing out 17 assists versus one turnover in his last four NEC contests. And, of course, there’s soon-to-be-sophomore Daniel Garvin, who may have won the NEC Rookie of the Year award if an unfortunate bout of mononucleosis didn’t sideline him halfway through the season.
The days of being the NEC doormat have been long over, and given the amount of talent defecting from the conference this season, the Bulldogs will likely continue to hang around the upper half of the league for the foreseeable future. As we’ve learned, doing that gives this Bryant Bulldogs team a reasonable shot at the NCAA tournament.
- Alex Francis (18.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 58% FG%) – The New York City native finished with one of the more under-appreciated careers in NEC history, even if he logged two all-conference first team selections and a Rookie of the Year award for his time as a Bulldog. In all, he left Smithfield with 2,085 career points and 988 career rebounds. Without Francis, there’s no way Bryant has anywhere near 37 victories after two seasons of full eligibility in Division I. O’Shea wholeheartedly agrees, “He committed to us at a time where we were coming off a one win season, when we were really struggling to get a foothold in Division I.”
- Corey Maynard (13.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.6 A/TO) – Every team needs a Corey Maynard, a selfless, fearless, and determined leader who’ll do everything he can to lead his team to victory. Julian Norfleet’s maturation from shooting guard to point guard is well documented, but Maynard underwent the same successful transformation with much less notoriety. Nonetheless, the lefty’s play at the point was terrific in his senior season. It doesn’t seem fair that Maynard’s last shot, which would’ve likely sent Bryant to the NEC semifinals, didn’t find the bottom of the net.
Read the other NEC end of season recaps here: Sacred Heart