Peter Kiss knew the Bryant University men’s basketball team had a chance to be special before he ever spent a day on the school’s Smithfield campus or met most of his teammates.
Kiss, a redshirt senior who transferred from Rutgers, was training in New York City with fellow transfer Chris Childs and during one drill Childs showed why Bryant coach Jared Grasso recruited the Bronx native out of Indian Hills Community College in Iowa.
“In the first day he did a drill where in a minute he buried 24 3s in a row – just something absurd. I didn’t see that at Rutgers. I didn’t see that at Quinnipiac,” Kiss said Tuesday morning. “Coming to the school, I first got here with Charles Pride and Michael Green and the first day we played two-on-two and I knew they were special. Every time I met someone in the program, something just told me they were special.”
While Kiss immediately believed the Bulldogs were building something special after five straight losing seasons, Grasso, who is in his third season in Smithfield, needed to see some tangible results.
Grasso loved what he saw during the preseason, but it was the narrow loss to Syracuse in the season opener and the team’s response a few days later against New Hampshire that showed him the program is ready to turn the corner from plucky underdog into Northeast Conference contender for the first time since reaching the NEC semifinals in 2015.
“You never know until you play somebody else,” Grasso said. “After that Syracuse game, it wasn’t that we played Syracuse and had a chance to beat them, just the way played carry over from practice every day and play the same way we practice. And then bouncing back and going to beat a good New Hampshire team on the road. After those two games, I said ‘We have a shot with this group.’ The biggest piece of this is they’ve been consistent.’”
Bryant (9-2, 5-1 Northeast Conference) leads the NEC by a game over both Long Island and St. Francis-Brooklyn, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of the squad’s dominance this season. Kenpom.com has the Bulldogs ranked as the No. 180 team in the nation, 60 spots ahead of the conference’s next team, Long Island. The Bulldogs also boast the third-fastest pace in the country with 76.6 possessions a game.
The NET rating – which is a big tool the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses to seed teams – has the Bulldogs ranked 85th in the country, just seven spots behind Providence and nine behind Rhode Island. A first Northeast Conference title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament are clearly in the Bulldogs’ reach this season, but Grasso is simply focused on the process.
“I do think this is a special group and I think we have a chance to do special things on a daily basis,” Grasso said of a team that is ranked 25th in CollegeInsider.com’s Mid-Major top 25. “For me, the moment is more today. Let’s show up and have a good practice today like we did yesterday... Of course, when you have a good group do you want to go to the NCAA Tournament? Ya. Do we want to win the regular-season championship? Absolutely. Because of our mentality taking it day by day, we’ll have an opportunity to do that.”
Kiss, who was named NEC Player of the Week after leading the Bulldogs to a sweep of Wagner last week, has been a revelation this season. The New York native is averaging 17.8 points a game on 53.5 percent shooting from the field and 41.9 percent from 3-point range. He has formed a formidable backcourt partnership with Green III, who is leading the team with 18 points a game and 4.6 assists a game.
Considering three of last season’s top five point scorers are no longer in Smithfield, Grasso has done a brilliant job meshing returning talents like Green III, Pride and Hall Elisias with talented transfers Kiss, Childs and Luis Hurtado.
“I think everybody has their own role, but everybody plays with a certain sense of freedom, which is why everyone excels in their role,” Kiss said. “We have as much confidence in me to drive the ball as we do Joe Moon or Kai Kostmayer because we all put in the work. We’re all in the gym three hours a day and getting the gym twice a day after practice.”
The Bulldogs, who have won six straight since throwing away a double-digit lead against St. Francis-Brooklyn, travels to NEC runner-up Saint Francis for a two-game series in Loretto, Penn. The Red Flash (1-5, 0-3 NEC) have lost their last five games since upsetting neighbor Pittsburgh to start the season.
Grasso said he’s watched “four or five of their games” this season, but he said his big focus this week is on the Bulldogs and imposing their will on opponents. The Red Flash are 104th in the nation in tempo, but they have the 304th ranked defense in the country. Ramir Dixon-Conover is the only player averaging in double figures at 14.3 points a game.
“Winning games is harder, winning league games is harder and winning road league games is hardest,” Grasso said. “They’re a good team and they’ve had a really difficult schedule. … I think they have very good young talent in addition to some veteran guys who have been a part of the success they’ve had the last couple of years. It’s going to be challenging.”
The first game of the series is Thursday night at 7 o’clock on ESPN Plus and the second game is Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock on NEC Front Row.
Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello