A Deep Dive Into Bryant’s Defensive Resurgence

Photo: Victoria Brenchak

Rebuilding projects can take some time to develop, especially for those coming off a season where the program couldn’t muster enough wins to count on two hands. 

When Jared Grasso was hired by Bryant President Ronald Machtley after an extensive search, such was the expectation. Grasso was viewed in coaching circles as an excellent recruiter and tireless worker under NYC legend Tim Cluess, yet most people were cognizant of the time it would take to get Bryant back in a position for title contention. Sometimes it takes three years, like it did for Greg Herenda at FDU. Other times when inheriting talented players such as Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack, like Jamion Christian did, maybe two seasons is the benchmark.

For Bryant, the latter could apply and that’s been solely due to Grasso’s recruiting acumen. Adam Grant, Ikenna Ndugba and Patrick Harding (a Tim O’Shea signee) are valuable players who each possess a specific, elite skill, yet it’s the newcomers that have shaped the roster and positioned Bryant for not just the future, but the present as well. The Bulldogs welcomed seven newcomers into the fold for 2019-20 – four freshmen and three JUCO transfers – and so far five of those recruits are playing a substantial role in Bryant’s renaissance a mere 11 games into the season. The Bulldogs are 6-4 against Division I competition, a league high, and have three road wins to boot, including the latest effort that sank a hosting Atlantic 10 school.

So what has exactly gone on to lead Bryant to success?

For starters, Ron Ratner captured the resurgence in the league’s latest weekly update. Bryant struggled to defend last season, to put it lightly. The 11th worst adjusted defensive efficiency in the country (115 points allowed per 100 possessions) was impossible to ignore for the second year head coach, so much so that he led with it this offseason. “We put a huge emphasis on our defense from the day we stepped on campus (this summer), because I thought we were so poor defensively last year, that we needed to make some changes,” Grasso confirmed.

The added emphasis has paid off, as Bryant has seen its defensive efficiency improve by a whopping 130 spots in Division I. With the help of a terrific recruiting class that’s bolstered the program’s depth and versatility, Bryant now has multiple weapons to deploy on the defensive side of the ball. Let’s examine the fine points of how Bryant has given up a measly 0.85 points per possession (ppp) in their six wins.

1) Solidifying the Middle

Photo: Dave Silverman

Hall Elisias has been a revelation for those outside of the Bryant program. Seemingly out of nowhere, the 6-foot-8 junior college transfer has been a beast around the rim, posting the fourth best block rate (17.8%) in the country. His 17 blocks accumulated over the last 3 games (63 minutes) – all victories – is a major reason why those opponents have converted just 42.7% of their attempts inside the arc.  

Grasso had been monitoring Elisias since high school and when he played collegiately at the now defunct LIU Post. It’s taken time for Elisias’ body to fill out, but the skills were always there. “I always knew he was athletic enough to be a really good shot blocker – he’s the high major athlete,” Grasso said of his center, who blocked a respectable yet unspectacular 20 shots in 20 games at New Mexico Junior College last season. “I didn’t know he instinctually is as good of a shot blocker as he really is and I think he’s just become more confident.”

That confidence was certainly flowing against Navy. Send it back big fella!

Hall’s interior presence, along with his teammate Patrick Harding, has given Bryant a formidable one-two punch at center, especially when Grasso deploys his aggressive, 2-3 matchup zone. Harding may not block shots in bunches like Elisias, yet the sophomore continues to showcase his nose for the basketball, gobbling up a remarkable 33.4% of the opponent’s misses (4th nationally). He currently leads the NEC at 11.2 rebounds per game.

“They’ve been as good of a two-headed monster that I think you can have at that position,” Grasso said of the combo, who’ve effectively split time at the five. “They are both different, but they both give you a lot on the defensive end.”

Case in point: When Elisias was in the game versus a Fordham lineup that featured three bigs standing at 6’9” or taller, the Rams shot just 4 of 12 from inside the arc. Elisias himself rejected three of those 12 attempts. Harding during his time on the Rose Hill court grabbed 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes. He’s as sure handed around the rim as they come.

2. Much Improved Depth and Athleticism

What makes this non-conference run all the more impressive is that Grasso hasn’t gotten much of a contribution out of Bash Townes (knee, ankle) and Juan Cardenas (foot). Both players continue to work their way back from injuries, with Cardenas seemingly gaining more confidence with each successful effort. The Colombian was aggressive on Wednesday, scoring an efficient 8 points on 4 shots.

Nevertheless, Grasso has been without both players for significant stretches, instead relying on dynamic wings Charles Pride, Mikail Simmons, and at times Benson Lin. All three have steal rates that register in the top 500 of Division I. The newfound athleticism at the wing positions allows Bryant to attack the perimeter and suppress the opponent’s long distance opportunities (34.7% 3PA/FGA, 98th nationally) when in their zone. At the same time, those wings all possess the quickness to recover and double the post when necessary.

It’s a sound strategy for programs that have interior scorers, yet may not be as efficient from long distance. The scheme created fits for Fordham and forced the Rams into several contested perimeter shots. After a somewhat torrid start, Fordham came back to Earth by shooting 26.1% from deep. And it hasn’t been much better for the others – all of Bryant’s opponents have made 30.0% of their 3-point attempts. That’s a stark improvement from a 38.8% mark in 2018-19.

Versus Navy, the Bulldogs mixed up their defensive schemes throughout the night, holding the Midshipmen to just 0.76 points per possession. The versatility has made Bryant much less predictable according to Grasso. “We’ve been doing a couple of different things defensively, switch up defenses, trying to keep (opponents) off-balance a little bit,” he said. 

3) The Guards Can Defend With the Best of Them

Photo: Dave Silverman

One major benefit from getting Ndugba back this eason has been his toughness and ability to face up against most guards. That was to be expected, yet few Bulldog fans likely expected the newcomers in Michael Green and Lin to be able to defend with as much tenacity and savviness as Ndugba.

Lin has flashed an astute sense to anticipate and jump passing lanes (3.0% steal rate), while Green’s low center of gravity and lateral quickness has made life difficult for opposing guards.

Throw in the aforementioned wings and Grasso can now switch defensively one through four, both within the zone and man-to-man schemes. Just watch Simmons switch off his man in great anticipation during a pivotal moment against Columbia. (Oh, and you might enjoy his finish on the other end too!)

It may be difficult to continually switch defensive schemes and be effective on a game by game basis, but that serves as a testament to the Bryant’s chemistry which has developed in a short period of time. “Scheme aside, you can play a million different ways, when your guys are connected with each other and care about each other, you have a chance to be successful,” Grasso said of his group.

The coach admits there’s still plenty to improve apon as we inch closer to league play – reducing turnovers and shooting better are on Grasso’s wish list – yet the Bulldogs have put themselves in a position to contend.

There surely will be challenges moving forward, especially when Grasso attempts to incorporate Pride and Townes back into the rotation and keep everyone happy in the process. At the same time, having too much talent is a good problem to have and Grasso certainly can smile after undergoing an arduous opening season filled with injuries and a lack of depth.

Now, Bryant looks to hang their hat on their defense. It’s their best chance to getting back to hosting a game in the NEC tournament quarterfinals.

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Ryan Peters

I like NEC hoops. That's why I'm here.

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