SMITHFIELD, R.I. – This isn’t the Bryant of the past couple of seasons. While that may be obvious, and even expected given that everyone knew they would be losing key players after last season, the reality of it is starting to become clearer as Northeast Conference play approaches. The most glaring issue is at the point of strength in recent years: the offense.
Head coach Tim O’Shea rightly notes that a team’s overall shooting number might be deceptive, especially for a team like his. The Bulldogs, after all, play against some high-major teams that are much more physically gifted than they are, and a game or two with a low percentage can skew statistics a little deceptively for either team. Still, that the Bulldogs are shooting over 38 percent from the field on the season is a bit surprising and troubling.
Perhaps the biggest area of concern is who complements Dyami Starks. The senior is having a fine season, picking up largely where he left off despite being the primary focus of defenses now, though he’s also among the Bulldogs not shooting well. He’s putting up over 19 points per game to lead the way, but also shooting below 40 percent from the field.
But after that, it’s a problem, and that was one thing that hurt them in losing 76-59 to Dartmouth to close out 2014. Starks was just 3-12 for 10 points in the game. They lost the game for more reasons than the lack of a second scorer, but that didn’t help.
This has been evident just by looking at the Bulldogs in isolation, and statistics back it up. Starks has taken more than twice as many shots as any other Bulldog, with sophomore Dan Garvin coming in second. Garvin is also second on the team in scoring, at 6.6 points per game – about one-third of Starks’ average. Three others average at least six per game.
It all adds up to the Bulldogs’ overall struggles at the offensive end. The past couple of years, they could light up the scoreboard on any given night, but this year they are averaging just 61 points per game. They have more turnovers than assists as well.
It’s not as if Bryant lacks players with the potential to do this. Rather, it just hasn’t happened yet. Garvin is, as O’Shea notes, still finding himself as a player. He’s going to be quite a defensive player, and he’s not lacking offensive talent, but he doesn’t have one go-to scoring method. They are high on Hunter Ware, but he’s still a baby physically and experiencing the ups and downs that go with adjusting to college basketball for someone who isn’t an elite talent. Joe O’Shea, who led the Bulldogs on Wednesday with 12 points, is perhaps the perfect player since he’s a complementary player, but his confidence can come and go and he’s been a bit on the feast or famine side this season with his shooting. He’s had three games where he was perfect from long range, but also three where he didn’t make any.
You can see how this is affecting Starks at times, as he tries to carry the team. He got just five shots in the first half on Wednesday thanks to good defense from Dartmouth, but in the second he started taking some tough ones, like a tough leaner in traffic or a very contested deep three-pointer. You can also see him visibly trying to guide others on offensive plays, owing to his nature as well as him knowing the Bulldogs need to get others going. And you can see it on plays like one where Starks caught the ball around the top of the key, looked for a teammate to cut, and didn’t cut enough, leading to a turnover. He doesn’t look frustrated, but you can sense there’s a lot of weight being put on him from all angles and he’s trying to find the balance between taking the shot and getting others going, the kind of struggle a point guard sometimes goes through even though that’s not his position. He’s a driven young man who wants to win, especially in this, his last go-round.
The offensive struggles put more pressure on the defense, and that’s an end of the floor where the Bulldogs haven’t been great the last couple of years. This year’s team has been better, but still has room for improvement. O’Shea said he feels they’ve been pretty good at times defensively on the season, and hopes to see continued improvement there. Dartmouth at times carved them up, but that said as much about how well they ran their offense as it does how Bryant defended.
An X-factor in all of this is that the Bulldogs simply haven’t played many games thus far. Due to having to schedule a couple of non-conference games out into the conference season, they have only played nine games thus far. Entering Wednesday, they were one of just three teams in the nation to have played eight games to this point. More game experience will no doubt help, but now it has to come in conference play.
The Northeast Conference looks to be there for the taking, as it appears to have no clear favorite. Both of the Saint Francis schools – St. Francis Brooklyn and Saint Francis University (formerly known by its Pennsylvania location) are among those who have had the best non-conference showings, and others like Bryant and Sacred Heart have had their moments. You can’t rule out talented but young LIU Brooklyn or stalwart Robert Morris, as well as Mount St. Mary’s after their runs to the title game the last two years.
More game experience might be just the antidote for the offensive struggles. The Bulldogs should get better at both ends in NEC play, and if a complementary scorer emerges to take pressure off Starks and benefit from the attention he commands, this team could start to put some wins together and make a run in conference play. The good thing is that this is the time that matters.
“The real deal starts for us on Saturday in conference play,” said O’Shea.