During the early part of the past decade, the Northeast Conference was synonymous with exciting, high-tempo basketball. The LIU dynasty from 2010 to 2013 forged by Jim Ferry and Jack Perri led the charge, but other programs such as Central Connecticut, Monmouth and Sacred Heart certainly weren’t adverse to getting up and down the floor at a dizzying pace.
Later on however, the NEC fell back in average tempo and has hovered anywhere from 12th to 21st overall with respect to the other Division I conferences. Until now.
|Year||Possessions/ Game||Conference Rank||Fastest Team|
|2013-14||67.7||4th||Mount St. Mary’s|
As of this writing, the NEC currently has the second fastest tempo in all of the country after finishing last season as the 19th fastest conference. Three programs, in particular, are mainly responsible for the league’s newfound frenetic pace, as Bryant (2nd), LIU (11th) and St. Francis Brooklyn (26th) find themselves within the top 30 nationally in this category.
Each program has their own unique way of implementing their system, but Bryant has stood out given their fantastic 10-3 opening.
Back in early October when the NEC Media Day taping occurred, I asked Jared Grasso about the scheme he planned to implement with a mostly turned-over roster. He was coy in response, stating that while the scheme was a work in progress, he wasn’t quite ready to tell me “what the secret sauce was.” Truth be told, Grasso wasn’t yet confident with the team’s fast tempo until he saw his squad in action outside of their practice court.
“I knew we had the pieces early on to (play fast),” Grasso said last week when asked about when he believed Bryant’s up-tempo scheme could be realized. “The Syracuse game, even though they play zone, our pace carried over from practice into that game.”
It surely did. In the November 27th opener that took place in the cavernous Carrier Dome, the Bulldogs impressively exerted their style of play on Syracuse, racing up and down the floor to the point where the game ended with an astonishing 172 possessions. It was easily the fastest 40-minute game played by the zone-oriented Orange in two years (there was a 174 possession game later on December 19 versus Buffalo, but that game went into overtime).
For Bryant, a system was born – a breakneck, frenetic pace that has been successful in speeding up opponents on both ends of the floor to the point of discomfort. Through 13 contests – the most played by a significant margin when compared to their league counterparts – Bryant is averaging 76.6 possessions per game, while their offensive possession length averages just 14.4 seconds per possession, eighth in all of college basketball. Per Hoop-Math, a nation’s best 43.4 percent of Bryant’s possessions are of the transition variety, and that leads the NEC by a considerable margin (LIU is next at 36.7 percent, which ranks 10th in DI).
It’s one thing to be fast, but it’s entirely another thing to put your pedal on the gas AND score efficiently. Bryant thus far has done both. When adjusting for pace the Bulldogs are registering 102.7 points per 100 possessions, a notable feat for a NEC squad that places them in the top half of college basketball.
One reason for Bryant’s increased tempo and efficiency is their proficiency to convert 3-point attempts at a 41.5 percent clip. The Bulldogs long-distance prowess has given Grasso the flexibility to roll with four to five shooters at any time when on the floor, much in the same way that Tim Cluess programmed his Iona teams when Grasso was the associate head coach.
This is a far departure from what Grasso inherited in year one, where Adam Grant and Juan Cardenas were the only players who sank at least 35% of their 3-point attempts in the 2019-20 season. Now, six Bulldogs meet that 35% threshold with four of them – Michael Green, Charles Pride, Chris Childs and Peter Kiss – attempting at least 45 shots (about 3.5 to 4 attempts per game) from behind the arc.
“When you have guys who can make shots, that spaces the floor in itself,” Grasso said when asked how much Bryant’s shooting helps dictate pace.
Having multiple shooters on the floor will make you more deadly in transition as well. Case in point:
Furthermore, Grasso believes the spacing opens up the lane for his off-the-bounce playmakers such as Green, Pride and Kiss. Throw in the unselfish nature with which they play and an efficient yet hurried offensive attack is born. “Peter Kiss, Luis Hurtado, Chris Pride catch it, make the extra pass, make the simple play which makes the game a lot easier,” Grasso confirmed.
Just watch these examples of how the Bulldogs will make the extra pass for the betterment of the team. It’s basketball that can be pleasing to the eye!
And yet the game’s tempo isn’t solely dictated from the offensive end. Bryant has also made a concerted effort to speed up the game defensively. They’ve done it mainly with their full-court press, as they have the luxury of the league’s best shot blocker sitting back to protect those odd man breaks should the pressure be broken. Send it back, Hall Elisias!
In addition to the press, the Bulldog’s zone defense, a scheme that’ll pull its wing off the baseline to reduce 3-point attempts and rhythm 3s, has been effective as well.
“We’re trying to speed teams up with our pressure and our zone is a little unconventional where we’re playing obviously a lot of zone right now, sprinkling in some man-to-man,” Grasso said. “We want to get some offense off our defense.”
The Bulldogs have been working on both defenses in practice, in preparation for league games down the stretch later this month and in February. The rationale is to be flexible while retaining the ability to adapt on the fly and also keep opponents on their heels.
Thus far it’s working with Bryant sitting at #97 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. We are only one third into the conference season, but the Bulldogs have emerged as one of the league’s frontrunners on the back of a scheme that’s well suited for their roster.