When the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook is released later this off-season (you can reserve a copy here!), many might be surprised that I picked Bryant to finish fourth in the Northeast Conference.
Even though the Bulldogs failed to make the NEC tournament back in March, why do I believe they’ll host a league playoff game in the quarterfinals next time around? Allow me to explain.
Take one look at Bryant’s numbers since its ascension into Division I and one thing jumps out: the Bulldogs couldn’t score last season. After finishing in the NEC’s top three in offensive efficiency for three years running, Tim O’Shea’s group finished ninth in 2015-16. It was a hopeless campaign where they settled for far too many jump shots, turned the ball over way too much and blew several second half leads in the midst of a crippling 12-game losing streak. The chart below illustrates Bryant’s sudden lack of offensive firepower in 2015-16:
|Record (NEC finish)||19-12 (3rd)||18-14 (3rd)||16-15 (3rd)||8-23 (9th)|
|Free Throw %||74.0%||69.5%||76.5%||68.2%|
Although there were several factors that led to Bryant’s demise, it was mainly because the returning players struggled to fill the possessions left behind by the graduations of Dyami Starks and Joe O’Shea. Case in point: when point guard Shane McLaughlin was at his best as a senior, the Bulldogs were quite successful. Unfortunately for Bryant, the opposite was true when McLaughlin failed to maintain a certain level of excellence:
- McLaughlin’s stats in Bryant’s 8 wins: 13.1 ppg, 7.8 apg, 4.5 rpg, 52.8% FG, 12 made 3PT
- McLaughlin’s stats in Bryant’s 23 losses: 5.9 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.8 rpg, 34.1% FG, 13 made 3PT
The point guard’s statistical difference was stark; there’s no other way to describe it. While it’s vehemently unfair to pin last season’s failures solely on McLaughlin–others like Hunter Ware and Daniel Garvin weren’t efficient scorers and Bosko Kostur essentially disappeared by the time conference play rolled around, it’s clear that filling the vacancy left behind with McLaughlin’s graduation will be of the utmost importance for O’Shea.
This is why 5-11 rookie point guard Ikenna Ndugba may be the most important player in getting Bryant back into the upper tier of the league.
It’s easy to feel good about the progression of sophomores Marcel Pettway and Nisre Zouzoua, after both had stellar rookie campaigns. (For the record, as polished as Pettway is already in the post, I actually view Zouzoua as a NEC top 5 player in 2016-17, especially after he averaged 19.3 ppg and shot 44.9% over his last eight games)
Alongside those two cornerstones, role players such as Ware, Garvin and Gus Riley—a 6’8″ stretch four who’s impressed this offseason—should provide value at their respective positions. Fellow freshmen Tanner Johnson–a Will Miller clone at 6’5″ who has an excellent shooting stroke from 3–and Adam Grant have a chance to bolster a bench that O’Shea historically has trouble trusting. But for everything to fully gel, Ndugba will need to stabilize the roster as the floor general.
Reports from the Bryant coaching staff indicate that Ndugba has had an excellent summer and impressed during the international trip, where the Bulldogs played three teams in Italy. His mental toughness, natural leadership and ball facilitating skills have led to some comparing him to former Robert Morris star Velton Jones.
Becoming the next Velton Jones surely is a tall order, but given Ndugba’s talent and recruiting pedigree, pinning the Boston native as a lock for the NEC all-rookie team is a solid bet to make. Plus, check out his tremendous athleticism here!
My faith in Ndugba doesn’t mean he’ll assume the same statistical level McLaughlin exhibited in Bryant’s eight victories last season, but all indications are the freshman will run the offense like a veteran floor general. That, along with steadiness and athleticism on the defensive end, may be what the team needs to get over the hump.
With Ndugba’s perceived insertion into the starting lineup, the Bulldogs depth chart going into October should look something like this:
PG: Ndugba, Brickman, McHugh
G: Ware, Grant
G: Zouzoua, Johnson
PF: Garvin, Riley, Townes
PF: Pettway, Kostur, Urmilevicius
*Players in bold are projected in O’Shea’s top 8 with a 9th player possibly emerging as Ndugba’s backup
One of the reasons Ndugba became available to Bryant was because of the injuries he suffered in high school, which discouraged bigger programs from fully committing. If Ndugba suffers an injury at Bryant then all bets are off. But if the O’Shea’s freshman class can provide an impact around the veteran core, I expect Bryant will return to a place the Bulldogs were familiar with from 2012-2015—the upper tier of the NEC.
Sure, I’m counting on a rookie—a risky endeavor for sure—but over the past two seasons we’ve seen Cane Broome, Marcquise Reed, Elijah Minnie, Martin Hermannsson, Isaiah Blackmon, Mike Holloway and Quincy McKnight positively impact and elevate their teams right from the beginning. Perhaps my belief in Ndugba isn’t as big of a stretch as you might believe.
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