For a team residing in a one-bid conference, the final months of the calendar year are about lineup and rotation construction more so than wins and losses.
This concept may seem disingenuous, yet building up your non-conference resume with some impressive victories is usually secondary, and less realistic, when compared to the big picture of conference play. Staying healthy, discovering an optimal rotation and tweaking offensive and defensive schemes presides as the major goals before the month of January arrives.
Such is the case for long time coach Tim O’Shea and his Bryant Bulldogs, as they attempt to replace two all-conference talents and current professionals in Alex Francis and Corey Maynard. Their graduations have forced O’Shea’s hand in playing the role of mad scientist, mixing and matching players to piece together the optimal rotation.
The results may not have been pretty thus far — Bryant has played the 54th toughest schedule according to KenPom — yet O’Shea feels like his team is getting close to finding that much-needed balance. An impressive, complete victory over Army last week was certainly a step in the right direction.
In the win, Bryant scored a season high 1.19 points per possession thanks to a nearly flawless game plan where the Bulldogs made 20 two-pointers, eight three-pointers and 15 free throws. The offensive excellence was executed opposite an Army squad projected by most to finish in the top four of the Patriot League. And all it took was a couple of subtle adjustments and the insertion of center Andrew Scocca to help improve the Bulldogs’ offensive flow.
“Scocca is a kid we put in for nine minutes in the second half versus Brown and he was outstanding,” O’Shea said. “He’s shown a high skill level in practice so we went with him [against Army] and he’s really skilled. He knows how to play.”
After playing a grand total of 21 minutes in Bryant’s first six games, Scocca logged 29 minutes versus Army, registering 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. At 6’8” and 235 pounds, the red-shirt sophomore possesses the physicality and high basketball IQ to succeed as a “5” in the NEC. Scocca’s insertion into the lineup also gives Daniel Garvin and opportunity to play at his more natural position, power forward. The forward position is more suitable for an athlete such as Garvin that enjoys creating opportunities away from the basket.
Furthermore, Hunter Ware is beginning to emerge as one of the league’s best rookie talents. Since struggling early on as the backup point guard to Shane McLaughlin, the coaching staff decided to move Ware to shooting guard to simplify the game as he adjusts to the rigors of Division I basketball. The mild adjustment has paid off, with Ware scoring 28 points on 21 shots in his past two contests. His ability to pass the ball (25.7% assist rate) and make his teammates better, however, has also impressed the coaching staff.
“Hunter Ware is going to be a star at this level,” O’Shea gushed with asked about the freshman’s upside down the road. “He’s going to be one of the best players in this league over time. He’s finally gotten going, but his early games he didn’t look anything like that.”
Ware’s possible ascension gives Bryant the hope they’ve found their eventual second (or third depending if Garvin progresses) leading scorer.
That’s because, at the moment, there’s Dyami Starks and then everybody else. Starks, a senior and all-conference preseason first team selection, has lived up to the hype, leading the NEC in scoring (19.6 ppg) and three-pointers made (27) while posting the third best efficiency rating (14.4). Despite the extra defensive attention, Starks has impressively accounted for more than 31% of Bryant’s total points scored and 45% of their made three-pointers.
Joe O’Shea was expected to be the Robin to Starks’ Batman, but the forward has struggled so far. His field goal percentage (37.1%) has plummeted and his turnover rate (20.1%) has risen during his senior campaign, yet the head coach believes his nephew will become more productive now that his rotation is more in unison. O’Shea’s most recent performance at Army (10 points, four rebounds, two assists, zero turnovers) may be proof of that.
“We weren’t playing the right guys together. We weren’t executing,” O’Shea explained. “And when you don’t execute a guy like Joe, who is really fundamentally sound and plays well within structure, is going to struggle. And that was our issue in some of these games.”
With McLauglin, Starks, O’Shea, Garvin, Ware, Scocca and Gus Riley as part of the current rotation, O’Shea is hopeful an eighth player will emerge to provide Bryant with consistent minutes off the bench. The head coach is certainly cognizant of his team’s recent history of tiring down the stretch. Bryant has stumbled to a 10-11 record during the months of February and March the past two seasons.
Hence the importance of adding an eighth man to the rotation. Whether it’s Boston University transfer Zach Chionuma, Curtis Oakley, Ellis Williams, Bosko Kostur or even freshman Blake McBride making up the final piece of the puzzle, Bryant appears to be in good shape even if their current 2-5 record suggests otherwise.
O’Shea agrees, “I think you’re going to see a team where we’ll become a very hard out with that core seven [players]. We just have to find an eighth guy so that we have the type of rotation I’m more comfortable with.”
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride