SMITHFIELD, R.I. – It was a tale of two halves for Bryant Friday night in the semifinals of the 2K Classic at the Chace Athletic Center.
In Act I, the Bulldogs (2-1) obliterated a weaker opponent in Prairie View A&M (which entered No. 348 in KenPom) to the tune of a 23-point halftime lead. It ballooned to as much as 29 early in the second half before things started to go wrong in Act II, especially on the offensive end. Bryant was never seriously threatened (although close, the Panthers never got to within single digits), but the sloppiness was concerning for a Bryant team that wants to contend for an NEC title and its first NCAA Tournament berth in March.
Or was it?
“We played 28 good minutes and then got a little sloppy,” Bryant coach Tim O’Shea said. “But they’re a very athletic bunch. They got some momentum going and it played itself out that they made a big run against us. We still have a young team. I thought we were terrific were 28 minutes, and overall it’s a good win and we move onto Siena.”
Indeed, Bryant will get a good home test Saturday night against the Saints, who beat Radford in the opener of the doubleheader.
But what did we learn from the Bulldogs on Friday night?
- Bryant does have some depth
On this night it was the Oceania contingent of Gus Riley (New Zealand) and Bosko Kostur (Australia), neither of whom got any NEC preseason awards or was mentioned near the top of the Bryant scouting report. But Riley had a career-high 13 points by halftime, finishing with 18. He appeared in only 17 games as a freshman, but at 6’8”, Riley presents a matchup nightmare for mid-major opponents if he is hitting threes as he did tonight.
Kostur is actually in his third season at Bryant, but received a medical redshirt two seasons ago. He hasn’t started the last two games, but came up with a huge block and steal in the second half as Prairie View was making its run, finishing with 12 points and three steals in 24 minutes. At 6’7”, he made 46.9% of the threes he attempted last season, so he certainly has the physical capabilities to be a big part of Bryant going forward. And on a night where they need him like Friday, there he’ll be.
“If you look at our guys, they’re still mostly freshman and sophomores between Nisre (Zouzoua), Hunter (Ware), Gus Riley, and Bosko,” O’Shea said. “They’re doing a lot of good stuff, they just have to be able to do it for 40 minutes. This was a big win with the schedule we have coming up.”
Dyami Starks was sixth nationally in minutes played last season and seemed to take every big shot for Bryant the last few seasons. But the other senior the Bulldogs graduated, Joe O’Shea, left a big hole in the leadership category.
As Tim O’Shea mentioned, it’s a young team, so the leadership mantle falls to senior point guard Shane McLaughlin, who had 14 assists Friday night, a career high and Bryant Division I record. McLaughlin will rarely leave the floor, and will be counted on to do what he did Friday, right the ship when the young players are struggling.
“It’s not that much different from last year for me,” McLaughlin said. “I had the same role on the court last year, it’s just this year, I have to be a little more of a leader off the court. I was fortunate when I was younger to have great leaders like (current assistant) Frankie Dobbs, so I learned a lot from those guys and now it’s my turn to do it.”
3) Growing pains
The hype train caught up with freshman Nisre Zouzoua a little but Friday night, he finished with just five points on 1-4 shooting in 18 minutes. We’ve seen similar struggles early from freshmen all over the country and in the NEC with Sacred Heart’s Quincy McKnight. Sometimes we forget at this time of year how much adjustment time most freshmen need at this level. Tim O’Shea (just like Anthony Latina with McKnight) has been around long enough to know that there’s little reason to worry, let alone panic, at this juncture of the campaign.
“Nisre is going to be a very good player,” Tim O’Shea said. “He struggled a bit tonight, but he’ll be fine.”
Bonus) Some sympathy for Prairie View A&M
The Panthers fell to 0-3, and if they win a non-conference game this season, it might be reason to celebrate. While they’re certainly not ready to win a national title, they will most certainly be ready than their record shows after playing (they’ve already gone to VCU and Houston) at Wisconsin, UNLV, Baylor, TCU, Tulane, and Nebraska. They have one more Division I non-conference home game than they did last season, when they started 2-14 and rebounded to go 12-6 in the SWAC.
The reason for all the high-profile road games is financial, of course. Prairie View A&M uses the money to fund its basketball and athletic program. If you want to read more about life as an HBCU, you can read the story I wrote when I went to Alcorn State (another SWAC member) two years ago for The Mid-Majority.