SMITHFIELD, R.I. – A year can make a very big difference for a program. In the case of Bryant, that is exactly what has happened.
Things are certainly different now than a year ago at this time. Last year, not much was expected of the Bulldogs in their first season eligible for the Northeast Conference Tournament. They were picked tenth in the conference’s preseason poll, then got off to a fast start in NEC play and rode that to a fourth-place finish and ultimately a big in the College Basketball Invitational. They won 19 games, a 17-win jump from a year earlier, and won 11 more NEC games than a year earlier, which is a conference record.
Following that up will be difficult, but it’s the next test for the Bulldogs and they appear to be well-equipped to handle it. But there is still one big question for this team, and the answer to it will have a large bearing on the end result.
The Bulldogs lose two starters, and while neither is a small loss, Frankie Dobbs will loom large. Anytime a team has to replace a point guard, especially one who meant as much to a team as he meant, nothing is a given. Fortunately, the Bulldogs have several candidates, with the most experienced being Corey Maynard. While the senior has played off the ball more recently, he has played the point and appears to be the incumbent. He knows the game well and has the experience to boot, and everyone behind him has a lot less of the latter.
Sophomore Shane McLaughlin, who had seven assists and no turnovers in Sunday’s exhibition win, and freshman Justin Brickman are also possibilities. McLaughlin was the only freshman on last season’s team to play in all 31 games and is certainly capable, having come up big in one game last year, while Brickman is the younger brother of LIU point guard Jason. The dark horse could be redshirt freshman Declan Soukup, a baby-faced guard who could see time at both guard spots.
Off the ball, there are no questions as Dyami Starks will be the go-to guy. The junior made a big difference for last season’s team, giving them the kind of scoring threat on the perimeter they had lacked and becoming a leader along the way. Simply put, he’s a shot-maker and can get it off against most defenders. Joe O’Shea also returns, and the junior is a fine glue guy and another outside shooting threat, and Maynard could see minutes off the ball as well. All of them will get pressed in practice by Boston University transfer Zach Chionuma, who sits out this year and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
The frontcourt has its share of questions, but also some certainty, the latter starting with two-time All-NEC selection Alex Francis. The senior forward has evolved wonderfully over his career from putting up big numbers to being a winner last season. He should be a double-double machine once more this season en route to possibly becoming the first NEC player to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds for his career.
Who takes the spot alongside him vacated by the graduation of Vlad Kondratyev is uncertain, but there are good candidates. Senior Claybrin McMath showed promise early in his career, but injuries slowed him and he hasn’t been much more than a bit player. Still, he’s long and athletic and hasn’t lost the potential he had, and he’ll have every opportunity for a major role this season. Andrew Scocca returns after an illness cut short his season a year ago, and he was able to obtain a medical redshirt.
Three freshmen are worth keeping a close eye on here: Dan Garvin, Bosko Kostur and Ellis Williams. Garvin could be the best freshman in the conference and has a lot of upside as he is still a baby physically, while Kostur, who like Maynard hails from Australia, will play on the wing and gives them size at either spot. Both had some early foul trouble in Sunday’s exhibition win. Williams could be a big factor on the glass.
Bryant will have plenty of challenging games in non-conference play to get ready. They open the season at Gonzaga and later travel to Harvard, Notre Dame and Ohio State (both part of the Gotham Classic), and play CAA contender Delaware at Madison Square Garden to conclude the Gotham Classic. They also host America East contender Vermont in one of their six non-conference home games. After a road-heavy start to NEC play last season, the Bulldogs play four of their first six at home this season, including a visit from fellow contender Robert Morris in the second game.
Bryant will have to be a better defensive team than they were a year ago to take the next step. While they shot 48 percent from the field, including over 51 percent in NEC games, opponents shot 45 percent from the field against them and they are not a team that will turn you over.
The Bulldogs come into this year with a different feeling than last year. The bench looks different, as long time head coach Al Skinner has joined the coaching staff as an assistant, and Dobbs is now the director of basketball operations. Bryant comes in knowing they can compete with who they play against and that they should contend in the Northeast Conference. While last year’s result was a pleasant surprise, a similar result won’t be, and that’s a sign of where the program has come.