by Jake Zimmer
SMITHFIELD, R.I.- On the first day of November 2019, the Bryant Bulldogs are wrapping up shooting drills, running through their game-plan for the end of the half. They’re only four days away from hosting the Brown Bears at the Chace Athletic Center in the nation-wide Division I season opener.
Just a few months ago, first-year head coach Jared Grasso and the Bulldogs capped a 10-20 finish – if you’re keeping track at home, that makes the ‘Dawgs the lone team to triple its win total from last season. They tabbed 2 players to the All-NEC Second team and one to the All-Rookie team, tying the most in program history. In the last four seasons, 3 of the most well-attended games came from 2018-19 alone – an indication that something is now working in Smithfield.
It’s officially a new era for Bryant – for all intents and purposes, the Bulldogs appear to be out of the proverbial woods. Jared Grasso, who was doubted by critics when he arrived Bryant, now faces a “prove-it” year. After inheriting a roster that wasn’t entirely his craft, Grasso says it’s a luxury to finally have a roster mostly featuring players he’s recruited.
“Obviously, these are guys I just know better,” Grasso told College Hoops Digest. “I love the guys that have remained in the program – they’re terrific kids and guys who have been great for us. But these [freshmen] are guys I recruited and built relationships with, so it’s a little bit different when you go through that recruiting process.”
Throughout 2018-19 season, Grasso saw the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of leading a program of players he never knew until he took the helm in Smithfield. Some who enjoyed starting positions under ten-year head coach Tim O’Shea were relegated to platoon contributors, while others only saw a slight increase in minutes. Some saw it through; some sought greener pastures with D2 or D3 schools.
Said Grasso, “These guys now know what they signed up for. They’re here knowing the situation, where some of those other guys didn’t initially sign up for me. But I’ve built great relationships with them, and they’re my guys now.”
Quite a few stories are sure to be coming from Smithfield this winter, but here are the top plots to keep your eyes on as Chapter II of the Grasso era gets into full swing.
While teams like Fairleigh Dickinson, Robert Morris, and Wagner lost key seniors that graduated this May, Bryant has the luxury of returning a bulk of their roster. Seniors SaBastian Townes and Adam Grant, approaching their final year of eligibility, are ready to once again leave their mark on the NEC.
Many know the Townes-Grant combo for routinely making headlines in Smithfield for their scoring and playmaking efforts. But many aren’t aware of how they got here – they played together on an all-high school team in Virginia.
“Our freshman through junior year, we were always right there,” recalled Townes. “We were just missing that one piece, and we could never get over the hump. And our senior year, we just finally took it into our own hands – we were the big dogs, and we finally got over the hump and won the championship. This year, hopefully we can do the same thing.”
Senior JUCO transfer Juan Cardenas returns for his second year at Bryant, and has drastically improved during the offseason. Said Grasso, “Juan had a great summer. He went from where he was in September to February [last year] and was a totally different player. I think from then until now, and as we get into the season, you’ll see that he’s a guy who’s really taken his game to another level.”
Return of Ikenna Ndugba
Ike Ndugba came to Smithfield in 2016 as a very raw talent with plenty of redeeming qualities, but with a nasty side effect of often being too fallible for his own good. In a case of above-average progression, he’s now known at Bryant for his exceptional playmaking skills and high-quality defensive presence. Unfortunately, Ndugba couldn’t shake a battle with a nagging shoulder injury, and elected to redshirt the 2018-19 year. In a conference with too many shooting weapons than to account for and a dwindling amount of true point guards, Ndugba could be the Bulldogs’ key to making a run this year.
“He’s a real point guard, he’s tough, he’s vocal, and he can really defend the ball,” said Grasso. “The biggest thing is his leadership. Sometimes, you don’t realize these things until you have him out there…how much he talks, how smart he is, how much he communicates. I think he gives some of those other guys a comfort level that they didn’t have last year. He brings a ton of intangible stuff outside of what he does on the floor.
Take it from Townes, with whom he shares the court – he remarks that it might have been their lone missing piece last year. “Coach [Grasso] put a lot of pressure on me, because I had to step up as a big, and play the role of a point guard too. But having Ike out there is like having another coach on the floor.”
Ike’s full story is for another day.
Rookie Watch – Mike Green III
Jared Grasso, a New York native himself, seems to have a thing for New Yorkers. Four newcomers in the class of 2023 hail from the Empire State. But it’s Mike Green III, a 5-foot-11 point guard from the Bronx, that is catching eyes early.
“Don’t sleep on Mike Green just because he’s a little guy,” said Townes. “He’s definitely big at heart – he’s a pest out there. He came in and he struggled – but he’s come a long way, and he’s going to get better along the way. I think once conference play comes around, he’s going to be really key for us, especially giving Ike those minutes [on the bench] that he needs. I see him playing 10-12 minutes per game, and they’re going to be a great 10-12 minutes.”
Finishing the Job
Very simply put, the Bulldogs have a chip on their shoulders to finish a job that many believe wasn’t realistic. But in year 2 for Jared Grasso, the Bulldogs know that now is the time to get a move-on.
SaBastian Townes certainly has that mindset as a weapon in his pocket. “I think this is the year – it has to be the year. I can’t leave without that.”
Follow Jake on twitter at @JakeZimmer12 all season long for Bryant and Providence news and opinion.