The NEC has almost always been known for its guards, but unfortunately this season has been more about the players that are no longer with the conference than those currently participating. Rodney Pryor has had a great season (even though his team has not) at Georgetown, Marcquise Reed has a few big shots to his name at Clemson, while reigning NEC Player of the Year Cane Broome awaits his turn at Cincinnati, and Martin Hermannsson is doing his thing in France.
The void has been slow to fill, but there a few players peeking in the open door, the most prominent possibly Bryant sophomore Nisre Zouzoua. Despite battling an injury of late, Zouzoua has been hovering around 20 points per game all season, and showed Wednesday some of the skills necessary to grab the reins of those NEC stars that came before him.
With the Bulldogs, who failed to qualify for the NEC Tournament last season, trailing 48-46 with six minutes left in a key contest at Central Connecticut, Zouzoua – who had only 10 points at the time – decided he’d had enough. He drove to the basket for an old-fashioned three-point play to give Bryant the lead, followed with a three-pointer, then drove to the hoop one more time for a personal 8-0 run. The Bulldogs never trailed again in a 65-54 win that now sees them two games ahead of ninth at the NEC halfway pole.
Zouzoua is still acclimating himself to his role, and he has some talented guards around him in Adam Grant, Ikenna Ndugba, and Taylor McHugh, but he’s getting better (physically as well), and that could make Bryant dangerous in the NEC yet this season.
“Coach talks a lot about leadership and at the beginning of the year we did this Navy Seals program and talked about that being a leader is not only showing but talking and just trying to show that I’m not only a scorer, but I play defense,” Zouzoua said. “Coach always gets on my about rebounding, and I’m still getting better with that.”
For the NEC’s sake, hopefully he doesn’t improve so much that he follows the route of the league’s top stars from the last couple seasons.
What else did we learn in New Britain Thursday night?:
- Still some holes for Bryant
The Bulldogs (7-15, 4-5) are very guard-oriented to begin with, but they were manhandled in the paint by a CCSU squad that is not known for its physicality and inside strength (although they do have solid offensive rebounding numbers). At the mid-point of the second half, 10 of Bryant’s 12 field goals were three-pointers and the Bulldogs had a grand total of two points in the paint. They would finish with 14 (including Zouzoua’s drives), which was the big reason that allowed them to pull away.
CCSU was over 50 percent offensive rebounding in the first half, but they finished at only 38.6% and that was boosted by a tough night from Tidell Pierre, who had nine offensive rebounds (14 overall), but several came off his misses from point-blank range (2-12 shooting). Bryant would like a little more production from Marcel Pettway (3 pts., 8 rebs.) and Dan Garvin (2 pts., 3 rebs.) going forward if they are going to contend. The Bulldogs got 35 minutes (12 pts., 6 assists) from Taylor McHugh who has been playing more and more of late.
“I think we’re getting better,” Bryant coach Tim O’Shea said. “We’ve won two in a row on the road now. We have an extremely young team and we’re figuring some things out. I think the biggest difference on our team has been the play of Taylor McHugh. He’s come in at the point guard position and is so much improved over his first year, where he barely played. With a young team, I think the hardest thing to do is winning close games, especially on the road.”
2) Making shots
Donyell Marshall was correct that his team has struggled both offensively (326th) and defensively (329th) this season, but it was the offense that was the bigger problem Wednesday, specifically the 36.4 eFG%, of which Pierre (who played really hard, it should be said), and Austin Nehls – who finished 0-10 from three, breaking a streak of 36 games with at least one that began against Bryant last January – unfortunately played a big part.
“I thought we played hard,” Marshall said. “I think we’ve played hard the last eight, nine games actually. But we’re just not playing smart, we’re just not finishing.”
Khalen Cumberlander led CCSU (3-17, 1-8) with 16 points, but 14 came in the first half and once Bryant adjusted, good looks at the basket for the Blue Devils (who don’t run much, 311th in adjusted tempo) were few and far between.
“It’s very frustrating to know that we can compete with the majority of teams in this conference, but it just comes down to two or three plays down the stretch, and we don’t seem to make those plays to get the win,” Cumberlander said.
Said Marshall: “You can’t look at the final scores of the games we lost. Every game we’ve been in has been a 4 or 5-point game with two minutes left. So you can say we need to score, because obviously we’re not on the winning side with the most points. You can also sit up here and say, if we would have gotten stops, we would have scored enough points. From the beginning of time in basketball, there’s going to be nights where your offense struggles, but can you get enough stops when that happens?”
3) Halfway home
As was previously written, Bryant’s win was huge for staying away from the NEC cut line come tournament time (8 of 10 advance). Bryant and CCSU were the two teams not to qualify last season.
“I think they’re all big,” O’Shea said. “You never know in hindsight and look back and say, geez. We may look back and see that triple overtime loss to Sacred Heart cost us a home game or the overtime game at St. Francis (Brooklyn). But we’ve won a couple, too. We have to have the poise and presence to figure that out. We’ve been all over the map at how we’ve played, and that’s a function I think of being so young.”
Meanwhile, it’s been three years since CCSU has been in an NEC Tournament, and that means it’s close to the point where the Blue Devils are ready to crank the urgency meter up to full power with nine games left.
“One of the things I told the team was one of the worst feelings I had, I played for Golden State before they’re Golden State like now,” Marshall said. “And when you’re in February and you already know when you can make vacation, it’s not a good feeling. It’s not good to be possibly done on February 25. Let’s get to the point where we don’t know when our season is going to be over.”
You are looking live at Detrick Gym, where CCSU honors long-time academic coordinator Bobbie Koplowitz with this on her seat this season pic.twitter.com/wlcHxfHXZp
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 25, 2017