The Bulldogs, despite leading for a majority of the game, lose 85-84 at the Carrier Dome. Orange head coach Jim Boeheim: “They should’ve just cancelled the game.”

PIC CREDITS: Maggie Boulton

By Jake Zimmer

“Not practicing in 14 days, you just can’t play this game. They should’ve just cancelled the game.”

That’s not a tweet from an angered fan of the Syracuse Orange, nor is it Rick Pitino attempting to whip other coaches & fans into delaying the season by a few weeks. Those are the words of future Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim, who trailed 51-44 at halftime to the Bryant Bulldogs in Friday’s opening contest for both teams.

“We’re not conditioned,” Boeheim continued. “They’ve got fast guys and they’re pushing it right by us. This is a tough game for us if we’re practicing every day. We’re not ready.”

Jim Boeheim, who conducted the interview with Syracuse radio’s play-by-play broadcaster Matt Park, was rightfully upset.  The Orange had just completed a ten-day quarantine period this week after Boeheim tested positive for COVID-19, and had not held any official team practices during the period.  His comments were widely perceived as “overly reactive” to the 51-44 halftime score, but clearly resembled the struggles of playing college basketball in a global pandemic.

After all, Bryant nearly knocked off Syracuse – the sixth-ranked team in the ACC Preseason Poll – on Friday, but ended up falling just short, 85-84. The loss was certainly not without its drama; both junior Peter Kiss and sophomore Michael Green III had solid looks at the game-winning shot, but neither of them fell.

“I thought we played really hard,” said the Bulldogs’ third-year head coach Jared Grasso.  “We had two great looks in the last 12 seconds. I was ready to run on the floor because I thought they went down.”

Bryant began their 2020-21 season opener with one of the most prolific scoring efforts during the Grasso era.  The Bulldogs seemed to take advantage of a leaky zone defense, and were able to knock down 8 three-pointers – 4 of them off the strength of JUCO transfer Chris Childs, who scored 18 in his Black & Gold debut – in the first half alone. Bryant hit more than 35% of its 3-pointers; 39 of its 84 points in the game came from beyond the arc.  Five unique Bulldogs broke the double-digit mark; Peter Kiss, Hall Elisias, Mike Green III and Charles Pride all eclipsed the ten-point milestone in their season debuts.

According to the Bryant Athletics postgame release, the 84 points Bryant scored against the Orange are the most the program has ever scored against a Power Five team at the Division I level.

“They did everything I asked them do to before the game,” said Grasso.  “They shared the ball and played the right way.”

Ultimately, it was the lack of frontcourt presence that proved to lead to Bryant’s demise.  Arkansas State transfer Melo Eggleston injured his leg within the first few minutes, and senior Hall Elisias fouled out at the under-4-minute TV timeout. So, Peter Kiss along with the six-foot-six guard Luis Hurtado were left to tame the Syracuse frontcourt of six-foot-ten Marek Dolezaj and six-foot-seven Quincy Guerrier.  The size difference proved to be a negating factor for the Bulldogs, as Dolezaj and Guerrier combined for 35 points and 18 rebounds.

“Hall (Elisias) is obviously such a presence that not having him out there hurt us,” Grasso reflected.  “Melo hurt his Achilles 2 minutes into the first half.  Maybe I didn’t go deep enough to the bench in the second half.”

But it wasn’t Bryant’s lack of bench utilization or lights-out guard performances that made headlines on Friday. Rather, it was Grasso’s reaction to Boeheim’s divisive comments about whether the game should have even been played in the first place.

Ian Steele of Rhode Island’s ABC affiliate told Jared Grasso of Boehiem’s comments earlier in the game, and Grasso responded as such:

Grasso, who was unaware of Boeheim’s full quote at the time, also insinuated that Syracuse wanting to cancel the game was “completely false.”

Grasso’s reaction starts to complete a picture that Boeheim was hanging in the balance between ensuring his team was ready for game action & rushing to get his team back on the court as soon as possible.

Boeheim expanded on his comments in a postgame interview with The Athletic’s Matthew Gutierrez: “The problem with this game, I made an unbelievable mistake. You cannot play basketball when you don’t practice,” he said.  “We were playing really well two weeks ago.”  

Boeheim also briefly spoke on the existing COVID-19 protocols already in place from the NCAA, and suggested dark times ahead if changes aren’t at least considered:

While Bryant hasn’t yet succumbed to a COVID-19 related shutdown, it certainly feels the pain of the 2020-21 season leaving rapid schedule changes in its wake. The Bulldogs were set to open the year against Stony Brook this past week, but per reports from Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, the Wednesday tilt was cancelled due to a referee with a positive COVID-19 test coming in contact with Tier 1 personnel on the Stony Brook staff.

“It’s been an emotional couple of days,” said Grasso. It’s going to be the way this season is.”

Bryant’s next official game on the schedule isn’t until their December 8th matchup against St. Francis Brooklyn, but Grasso told media on Friday night that his staff is still working on finalizing contracts to play games between now and then. They’ll certainly be looking for a chance to prove their worth in the top tier of the NEC rankings.

“You want to be in position to have the ball and win in a game like this,” remarked Grasso.  “We’ll enjoy it when it happens.”

And, of course, his mantra: “We’ll keep getting better.”