Some of the names are familiar–and expected. Butler, Duke, Syracuse, Louisville and Michigan all have significant pedigrees and are doing well, as expected. Duke and Michigan are the only 2 remaining unbeaten in Division 1 and must now be considered among the favorites to be playing in Atlanta on the final weekend of the season.
And then we swing down the conference standings list to the Northeast Conference where we see this: Bryant University 3-0 in the conference 10-4 overall.
This is Bryant University which was picked to finish 11th in the 12 team NEC in its first year of eligibility this season.
This is Bryant, which in the previous 3 seasons won a total of 13 games.
This is Bryant, the small little school in Smithfield, R.I, whose main claim to fame was that it once was the summer home of the New England Patriots.
This is Bryant, coached by former Boston College player and assistant coach Tim O’Shea who in four years of taking the Bulldogs from Division 2 to Division 1 has endured more than his share of the slings and arrows of defeat and embarrassment from one-sided losses (90-42 to Indiana in 2009, 2-28 record last season) and bad basketball.
In the middle of last season’s long and dark winter, O’Shea, who came to Bryant after a stint in the heartland at Ohio University, kept saying, “I think next year (2012) we can be competitive and the following year we can compete for the league title.”
This is Bryant which has already beaten BC at Conte Forum this season, is on a 5 game winning streak going into Saturday afternoon’s game against Central Connecticut State and already has a solid win over NEC pre-season pick Robert Morris.
And this is Bryant, which is tied for Wagner for first place in the NEC.
When O’Shea was on Al Skinner’s staff at BC, he and Billy Coen were the chief recruiters primarily responsible for the talent which made the Eagles a factor in the Big East and the ACC.
No one questioned O’Shea’s recruiting ability. When O’Shea went to Ohio and took the Bobcats to the NCAA tournament in 2005 his coaching ability also was verified.
Now, back home in New England–he commutes from Newport–O’Shea is proving he can also coach, recruit and build.
“We’re hugely improved,” said O’Shea. “But then we validate it by getting some wins. Defensively we’re a much tougher group. All the losing, year after year, to kind of start to turn it, it’s an emotional experience.”
“It’s amazing really, because it wasn’t that long ago that the biggest school on Bryant’s schedule was Bentley. Five years later, we beat Boston College. That’s remarkable. We’ve hung in there and now guys are starting to turn it. Last year, the only breaks were bad breaks. Now things are starting to turn in our direction.”
They turned with the win at BC in November. And then came the winning streak which started with a double-digit win over Dartmouth before Christmas and then unexpected road wins at Lehigh, the pre-season choice to win the Patriot League, and Robert Morris.
The Bulldogs are gaining more confidence with each win.
With players such as fifth year starting guard Frankie Dodds and junior forward Alex Franklin maturing, the Bulldogs are showing some teeth against every one they play.
“If you look at what we have been through its surrea.,” said O’Shea, who still knows bad nights can come suddenly (a 97-54 loss to Indiana in their season opener). But there are many more nights than bad ones.
“I’m not shocked because I think this team is pretty good,” said O’Shea, speaking of course, in relative terms.
But it seems clear that O’Shea’s goal of competing in the NEC has already been achieved.
Not quite on the Bryant surprise level is Northeastern’s 3-0 start in the Colonial Athletic Associaton race. Coach Billy Coen’s Huskies have put together a 3 game winning streak to get a game over .500 after struggling out of the gate with five losses in the first six games…Duke’s rise to the top is not a stunner. But the last time the Blue Devils started 15-0 was in 2005-2006. Despite its loss to Florida State this week, Maryland is still 13-2 and off to its best start since 1998-99.
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