SMITHFIELD, R.I. – The old saying goes that offense wins games and defense wins championships. If you’re a hard-line believer in that, then you’re not a believer in Bryant’s chances to win a championship as presently constructed. They’re a phenomenal offensive team at the mid-major level, but the defense has left something to be desired. The former shouldn’t change much, but a change in the latter would be big, and there are little signs that could be happening.
Bryant isn’t going to soar to the top of any defensive statistical categories anytime soon. Opponents shoot nearly 45 percent from the field against them, and the Bulldogs are out-rebounded by about four per game. The bright spots are that they force 13 turnovers per game and opponents shoot just over 30 percent from long range against them. It’s not unlike last year, and head coach Tim O’Shea freely admitted his team was not good defensively.
“Everyone can shoot the ball one through four, and Alex (Francis) is one of the best players in mid-major basketball and higher at getting to the rim,” said senior Corey Maynard.
But of late, there have been signs that this team could turn a corner at the defensive end of the floor. Some of it is coming from a freshman, but he’s hardly alone. The Bulldogs beat New Hampshire by holding the Wildcats below 35 percent from the field, then held Brown to 40.4 percent and Yale to 39.3 percent. Even in the Gotham Classic, where they lost three in a row, the only opponent who really shot the lights out against them was Ohio State, who shot 52.5 percent.
The latest effort was against Navy on Saturday. The Bulldogs didn’t exactly shut down the Midshipmen, but at key junctures they made stops to keep Navy at bay. Navy shot over 42 percent from the field and turned the ball over 17 times. In overtime, they were just 2-6, although a couple of those misses were from point-blank range. Bryant also out-rebounded the Midshipmen 44-33.
At the center of the defensive improvement is Dan Garvin, who started his first game on Saturday. The freshman forward posted his second double-double with 12 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots, and it’s part of his continued development. He posted one against Brown, where he was a key presence with the Bears’ talented front line, and on Saturday he was a big presence again.
Garvin has the kind of length and athleticism you don’t often see in a forward in the Northeast Conference. He came to the school as more of a “potential” player than one who was thought to be immediately ready, in part because he played in a high school league without much high-level competition. Playing for the powerful Connecticut Basketball Club helped, but travel team tournaments also have plenty of non-competitive teams as well. As such, it wasn’t a given that he would transition this fast, but the talent suggested he would at least make an impact right away.
A quiet young man, Garvin is very coachable and has simply worked to improve every day and every game. The improvement has continued steadily, leading to his first start on Saturday, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never leaves the starting lineup for the rest of his career. The defense is helping the offense, and with Garvin you can see it as he hit a jumper, grabbed a rebound at the other end and then hit a three-pointer to turn a 40-37 deficit into a 42-40 lead after a sluggish start to the second half for the Bulldogs.
“It seems like every game, he comes into his own,” said Dyami Starks. “Dan is a very quiet kid, a very humble kid, and every game you see that confidence, you see him come out of his shell. He’s playing the way we expected him to play.”
For his part, Starks has never been known for his defense, but he showed up at that end in a big way on Saturday. He spent a lot of time guarding Tilman Dunbar, Navy’s point guard, and while Dunbar had 14 points and nine assists against two turnovers, he was 6-15 from the field. More importantly, Dunbar didn’t control the game the way he can.
The Bulldogs didn’t do everything right defensively. Navy was 13-30 from long range, with Zach Fong going 7-10, including two shots late in regulation that sent the game to overtime. That came a bit out of nowhere as Fong had hit six three-pointers all season prior to the game, and some credit goes to him and their other shooters.
In all, though, it was another game of improvement at that end of the floor. Garvin is helping to lead the charge, and he’s only going to get better. If the team keeps following that, with their offensive firepower they will be tough to beat later in the season.