The biggest question surrounding Bryant University – and for that matter every team across the country – is what kind of season awaits the college basketball community? When, where, and how will the games be played?
Not all of the drastic changes are COVID-related. The NCAA has opted to grant an extra year of eligibility to NCAA Division I athletes who participate in winter sports. What kind of effect will that have on programs such as Bryant? Now in his third season at the head-coaching helm, Jared Grasso welcomes nine fresh faces to the program – some of whom have Power Five experience.
Waiting in the wings for the official blessing is the one-time transfer rule that would permit players to suit up for their new school right away. Regarding the Bulldogs, it will be interesting to see how they adapt to this particular change.
As for the here and now relating to the 2020-21 season, Grasso came across as upbeat and optimistic when he met with the local media via video conference on Friday. Here are some of the takeaways:
• Not being able to practice on campus during the summer months robbed Grasso and his coaching staff of valuable time to blend all of the newcomers with key returnees such as senior Hall Elisias and sophomores Michael Green III and Charles Pride.
The evaluation process has ramped up now that teams can officially practice and will remain an ongoing staple as Bryant inches closer to the Nov. 25 regular-season startup date.
“Usually by this time of year, you have a pretty good evaluation of your group and then you just try to get your system in,” said Grasso. “You have to understand that some guys are not where they’re going to be by January, February, and March based on what they were doing during the pandemic. We’ll keep coaching them up. We’re starting to figure out where some guys fit. I like how hard they’ve worked. I like their character. We’ve added some talented pieces to a returning core that I really like.”
• Peter Kiss has played games at Michigan State while fellow Bryant newcomer Melo Eggleston has set foot on the court as an opponent at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean Smith Center. Grasso was asked if having previously recruited Power Five talent in his program has been noticeable during the early days of practice.
“They have some physical tools and skills that allow them to separate themselves,” said Grasso, about Kiss, who played at Rutgers, and Eggleston, a former member of Wake Forest’s program. “Peter is a strong athletic guard while Melo is another strong guard who can handle the ball. You tend to not see a ton of those guys in our league, but there are good players at every level.”
• In terms of limiting the players’ exposure at a time when the NCAA is mandating a two-week shutdown period in the event that someone with direct contact with a college basketball program contracts COVID, Grasso says the plan is to stay in the region for the nonconference portion of the schedule.
“I think we’ll have the ability to do that,” he said.
Keep in mind the Bulldogs were originally scheduled to play in the Bahamas as part of a multi-team event. A game previously scheduled at UMass has also fallen through.
On the subject of conference play, Grasso mentioned the NEC is leaning towards playing back-to-back games against the same school at the same venue. For example, the Bulldogs would host St. Francis (Pa.) for two games in one week, then travel to Wagner for two games at the Seahawks’ gym the following week. The NEC is committed to playing all 18 league games.
“You want to limit travel and overnight stays for teams,” said Grasso.
• Under Grasso’s watch, Bryant is still in the habit of scheduling “buy games” where an opponent from an upper echelon conference cuts a check that either goes directly to the basketball program or into a general fund that benefits the entire athletic department. Obviously, the circumstances are different with schools not offering the kind of money they did before the arrival of the coronavirus.
Where this COVID-impacted financial shortfall leaves the Bulldogs figures to be interesting as colleges and universities continue to work within a drastically slashed budget.
“Needless to say, the money is not what it was before. Teams that were paying $90,000 to $100,000, they’re now paying between $15,000-$25,000. It’s something that we’ll have to make adjustments to in our budget and figure out how to make it work,” said Grasso. “Moving forward, there’s going to be less money for those games, but we’ll make it work on our end.”
• Pictures of the Bulldog players masking up during practice have been posted to the program’s Twitter account. It’s another reminder of the brave new world that all athletes and coaches are in as they seek to stay safe.
“It’s an adjustment, but we want to make sure we’re following all safety protocols,” said Grasso. “There are times when the guys will pull down their masks to catch their breath or take it off for a second or two, but it’s something we’re getting used to.”
Asked if he envisions Bryant playing games with masks on, Grasso replied, “Whatever they tell us to do, we’ll do. I’m not quite sure how it’ll shake out. As long as we’re out there playing, we’ll follow the protocols as much as possible to make sure we stay in a position where we are healthy.”
• The local connection to the Bryant program – former Shea High standout Erickson Bans – drew strong praise from Grasso when asked about the freshman guard’s adjustment to the college ranks.
“The biggest thing about him is that his motor doesn’t stop. It’s relentless. That’s been the most impressive thing about him,” said Grasso. “He comes and punches the clock every day and has been a joy to coach so far.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03