By Jake Zimmer
“I carry a piece of a net with me everywhere I go. It’s for two reasons: one is to remind myself of what the end goal is. Because that is we are going to work for every day. The other reason is to remind myself that this is a process-driven culture that is going to lead us to a championship.”
It’s hard not to be motivated by the comments that Jared Grasso made when he was introduced as Bryant’s head coach in April 2018. As we mentioned in our 2019-20 season preview, Grasso took over an ailing Bulldogs team that had finished 3-28 (2-16 in conference play) the year prior. He was tasked with not only rebuilding a roster, but instilling a way of winning in a program that had not seen much of it.
“As the son of a coach, I was always taught that your program should look like you,” said Grasso on the day of his introductory presser. “We’re going to be the hardest working team in the country. We’re going to dream about cutting down nets.” Grasso’s late father, Fred, coached under Rick Pitino for the New York Knicks, and was a longtime assistant at Adelphi. Fred has clearly instilled a desire for greatness in his son.
Throughout his 2-year tenure at Bryant, Jared Grasso has routinely mentioned one phrase & mantra that he claims will bring the program into the promised land: “relentless pursuit of progress.” Early this year, it appeared that the Bulldogs were well ahead of schedule…they surprised many with an 8-5 non-conference record through the months of November and January, their best mark against non-NEC opponents in Division I program history. The Bulldogs played two top-tier Big Ten opponents to close finishes. Rutgers, who now has a legitimate chance to become conference champions for the first time since they won the A-10 in 1991, only snuck out of the RAC with a 1-point victory; while Maryland struggled early against a pesky & physical Bryant frontcourt. JUCO transfer Hall Elisias was the leading blocker in the nation at the end of December, and three freshmen contributors set the tone for a productive year – including the future NEC Rookie of the Year, Michael Green III.
Just as soon as Bryant garnered the attention we thought they deserved, reality seemed to kick in. A span of four-straight losses in the first two weeks of conference play put the Bulldogs in a hole, capping the month of January with a 2-6 record. They fell to teams that they thought they should beat – Fairleigh Dickinson, who despite winning the conference last year, had major questions about their roster after losing two top contributors to graduation…LIU, who has traditionally given the Bulldogs a tough time both at home & away…Mount St. Mary’s, who returned Bryant’s favor in their season sweep of the Mountaineers last year.
And, who can forget this soul-crushing loss in the second-to-last conference game of the year, in which FDU converted a 95% chance of losing the game to a last-second win. Bulldog faithful quite literally watched a 90-minute drive to Fairfield unfold into an 8-hour bus ride to Pennsylvania.
Today, the Bulldogs look to test their apt for winning against a St. Francis (PA) team that it has had quite the interesting relationship with. For the past two years, the Dawgs and the Red Flash have split the regular-season series, and the Red Flash snuck out with a 67-63 victory in the quarterfinal. In the January 2nd meeting of this year, Bryant returned the 67-63 effort to notch a win – only their second in the last 7 meetings between the programs.
As for what went right during the home-and-home this year, Jared Grasso had praise for his club’s defensive efforts. “I thought we guarded really well. They made some shots at their place that they missed here. We played well, but (in the second game) we put ourselves in a hole. There’s a lot of pressure on them to win the championship (this year), and that’s a credit to the program they’ve built.”
Senior Adam Grant – who according to his head coach, will go down as “one of the best players in program history” – will spearhead the efforts to pull off a huge upset. While his legacy speaks for itself – third-highest minutes played of all-time, five occurrences of at least 7 three-pointers in a game, and third-most three-pointers in NEC history – it’s the last thing on Grant’s mind. “Legacy is important, but if we’re talking about individual accolades, I don’t care too much about it,” Grant told us on Monday.
Instead, he had high praises for his freshmen teammates in Benson Lin & Mike Green – who were named to the NEC All-Rookie Team – as well as Charles Pride. Grant said this about their performance & development this year: “I’m very impressed. We all had conversations (at the beginning of the year) about what to expect. It doesn’t seem like they’re freshmen anymore. During the summer we competed hard, and all talked about (the goal) each and every day.”
As players and coaches alike will tell you, the aspect of March – and winning – has them over the moon. Jared Grasso has competed in March, and felt the emotion that comes with proving a team worthy of the glory.
“I’ve had a lot of success in March,” he remarked. “It’s the best time of the year. We’re all 0-0 now. We’ve been battle-tested; we’ve won close games, and lost close games. Our freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore.”
“This is what it’s all about,” he went on to say. “I’ve been a part of cutting down nets, and piles, and seeing grown men crying…because of the emotions of winning a championship. Outside of the birth of my children, those were the best moments of my life.”
Grasso, a nine-year assistant coach for Tim Cluess – long believed to be the architect behind the Iona program – has danced five times with the Gaels. He’s won 3 games in March, all in the CollegeInsider Postseason Tournament (CIT), and nearly swiped the 2011 CIT title from Santa Clara. He knows a thing or two about postseason play.
And now, having the 4th-highest chance to win the NEC tournament (according to KenPom), they look to evaluate themselves against Grasso’s expectations. That’s not too shabby for a team with a second-to-last playoff seeding.