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.

Septet Represents #NECFB on STATS Legacy Awards Ballots

They are the most prestigious individual honors in FCS football and seven of the STATS Legacy Awards finalists hail from the Northeast Conference.

Central Connecticut QB Aaron Winchester and Sacred Heart RB Julius Chestnut are up for the Walter Payton Award, presented annually to the top offensive performer in the FCS.

Wagner LB Cam Gill and Saint Francis LB Da’Jon Lee are two of 26 national finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive performer in the FCS.

Sacred Heart redshirt freshman WR Tyrese Chambers joined 19 others on the ballot for the Jerry Rice Award, which annually honors the top freshman performer in the FCS.

One of only two conference with multiple finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, the NEC has placed Robert Morris’ Bernard Clark, Jr. and Central Connecticut’s Ryan McCarthy on the ballot.

On Monday, December 9, the voting results will begin to trickle out starting with the top-three vote-getters from the Walter Payton Award balloting. STATS will present the honors at its pre-championship game banquet in Frisco, TX on January 10, 2020.

Entering its 33rd season, the FCS legacy awards program continues to celebrate the high quality of play in the Football Championship Subdivision as well as some of the sport’s most-recognizable historical figures. The recipients of four major awards will be chosen by a voting panel that consists of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries.

Here are plenty of reasons why the NEC’s finalists deserve to WIN (only regular season statistics/accomplishments are shown)…

 

PAYTON AWARD

Aaron Winchester, QB (CCSU)

  • The Unanimous NEC Offensive POTY’s 3,204 yards of total offense rank in third in league history
  • Ranked fourth amongst national FCS leaders in pass efficiency (170.7)
  • NEC pass completion pct. (67.1) leader ranked third amongst league leaders in rush yards (782)
  • The dual-threat QB has eight rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards per carry for the NEC champions
  • Threw at least one touchdown pass in all 12 games, including a 68-yard go-ahead score w/ 2:05 left at FBS member Eastern Michigan
  • Contributing to first 11-win season in program history, he has 19 TD passes to only 4 interceptions
  • More than 90 rush yards in four different games, including 108 in season-opening win at Fordham and 161 in a NEC win over Bryant
  • 4 TD rushes in title-clinching Week 12 win over Robert Morris

 

Julius Chestnut, RB (Sacred Heart)

  • The former NEC Offensive ROTY ranked second overall amongst FCS leaders in rush yards (1,495)
  • More than 110 rush yards in nine different games
  • 366 rush yards and 5 TD rushes in three wins over Patriot League members (Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell)
  • Led NEC in rush attempts (293) and rushing touchdowns (11)
  • Made at least one reception in eight games; two TD receptions in win over Bucknell
  • More than 50 rush yards in all 12 games
  • Set NEC single-game season high with 203 rush yards in win over Bryant on Nov. 2
  • 128 scrimmage yards (111 rush, 17 rec) vs. NEC champion CCSU (FCS leader in rushing defense)

 

BUCHANAN AWARD

Cam Gill, LB (Wagner)

  • Two-time NEC Defensive POTY (2019, 2018)
  • Unanimous All-NEC First Team
  • Led circuit with 9.5 sacks
  • Tied for second amongst active FCS careers sacks leaders (34.0)
  • Tied for fifth overall amongst national FCS season leaders in tackles-for-loss (20.0)
  • At least 1.0 TFL in 11 consecutive games, including 2.5 TFL at FBS member UConn
  • Three forced fumbles are second most in NEC
  • Set NEC career sacks record with his first of two QB takedowns against NEC champion Central Connecticut in Week 10
  • Team-leading eight QB hurries to go with two fumble recoveries and two pass break-ups
  • At least 1.0 sack in seven of last eight games

Da’Jon Lee, LB (Saint Francis)

  • Led all FCS players w/ 24.5 tackles-for-loss
  • Made 4+ tackles in nine games, including double-digit totals against James Madison, Sacred Heart and Wagner
  • His team-leading 93 total tackles are fifth most amongst NEC leaders
  • Second amongst FCS active career leaders with nine forced fumbles
  • At least 3.0 TFL in five different games, including a season-high 4.5 hits behind the line in a win over Wagner
  • 5 TFL, including 1.0 sack, and one fumble recovery at No. 2 James Madison in Week 2
  • At least 0.5 TFL in all seven NEC games this season

 

 

RICE AWARD

Tyrese Chambers, WR (Sacred Heart)

  • The four-time NEC Rookie of the Week owns team highs in receptions (50), receiving yards (811) and TD receptions (8) in 11 games
  • His 73.7 receiving yards per game are fourth most amongst NEC overall leaders
  • At least 33 receiving yards in each of his last 10 appearances
  • Made a TD reception against six different opponents
  • Eclipsed 130-yard receiving mark three times in a four-week span
  • Made season-high 9 catches for 133 yards and 2 TD in road win over Patriot League member Lafayette
  • Went for 139 yards on 7 catches at Ivy League member Penn
  • Rushed seven times for 32 yards this season

 

 

ROBINSON AWARD

Bernard Clark, Jr. (Robert Morris)

  • Former Miami Hurricanes linebacker (and Orange Bowl MVP) has led a renaissance at RMU with a second-place NEC finish
  • Robert Morris increased its win total by five (5) during his second season at the helm
  • Picked next-to-last in the NEC Preseason Poll, RMU won its first five conference games before falling to nationally-ranked Central Connecticut
  • The team’s seven DI wins are its most in a single season since 2010 when it made the FCS playoffs
  • Colonials captured team’s first road win since the 2015 season when they posted a 31-21 victory over SoCon member VMI in Week 4
  • RMU has six conference wins this season after only one NEC victory in the prior three seasons combined

 

Ryan McCarthy (CCSU)

  • First-year head coach has presided over first 11-win season in program history
  • Secured NEC’s automatic FCS Playoffs bid by dealing Robert Morris its first league loss in Week 12
  • Blue Devils have been ranked in Top 25 for seven weeks – longest stretch by a NEC team in league history
  • CCSU owned 11-0 record vs. FCS teams; lone loss came in the final seconds at FBS member Eastern Michigan
  • 8 yards per play are fifth most in FCS; Pass Efficiency Rating is nation’s fifth highest
  • 3 rushing defense (71.3 ypg) in the FCS
  • FCS’ No. 2 total defense (273.3 ypg)

Merrimack and Mount St. Mary’s: Two Elite NEC Defenses?

With nearly a month of games in the books, we have a decent sample size to examine each program’s trends and successes. For my first in-season post, I wanted to hone in on the defensive side of the ball, because defense wins championships! Well, at least some of the time, but it sure helps to be locked in on that end.

November is  a difficult month for the NEC collectively, given the guarantee games and subsequent travel that’s involved. The first month of the season may not be the best barometer for determining which teams will invoke their brand and style of defense, and yet the prospects look good for two teams. 

And they are two programs I bet you didn’t believe would be the only NEC teams within KenPom’s top 210 in defensive efficiency: Merrimack (101.5 DRtg, 206th) and Mount St. Mary’s (101.0, 191st). Let’s break down each program’s defensive attributes one by one.

Merrimack

This offseason I was soliciting opinions of league coaches, past and present, to get their take on where Merrimack stood among the current slate of NEC teams. I figured a Warriors team rife with veterans coming off a NE-10 championship weren’t ever going to finish in the basement of the NEC standings. Those coaches offered a similar sentiment, and that was enough for me. 

I was “bold’ and selected Merrimack eighth out of 11 teams in my Blue Ribbon preseason rankings. It was bold compared to most, but now after an eight-game sample I may have underrated Joe Gallo’s squad. It’s all the defense’s fault.

Through eight Division I games, the Warriors stand 26th in the country in defensive turnover rate by forcing a turnover on over 24% of their opponent’s possessions. If you extrapolate that out to mid-major opponents, the turnover rate swells to 27%. The chaotic, attacking zone has been difficult for like-opponents to adjust to, and it’s been a key attribute in Merrimack’s impressive sojourn into Division I. 

Case in point: against Jacksonville earlier this month, the Warriors gave up a grand total of 5 points in 17 possessions to close out the first half. Eight turnovers, five points and a 19-3 run that put Jacksonville in the rear view mirror for good. Even in their latest defeat against a very good Akron team that thrives on pushing the tempo, Merrimack gave up a respectable 1.00 point per possession (ppp).

They achieved this ≤1.00 ppp benchmark in six of eight Division I contests as a matter of fact, while achieving the same success rate on extracting a turnover on at least 20% of their opponents possessions. All in all, the fluid scheme Gallo promised to install has come as advertised and the numbers have been consistent no matter the competition.

D-PPP

3PA/FGA 3PT% Defense

Turnover Rate

All Opponents

1.00

32.7% 29.5%

24.1%

Mid-Major Opponents

0.97

33.4% 29.2%

27.0%

“We thought we would be very good defensively,” Gallo said to me on Monday. “We thought it would be a little bit different (compared to Division 2); people shoot a lot more threes. So we were a little concerned with how well we’d be able to guard the paint, but we’ve brought in some pretty good size with our younger guys.”

Merrimack’s quickness, athleticism and agility, especially on the outer edge of the perimeter is a projected strength of Gallo’s unit, to the point where they’ve reeked havoc on passing lanes and limited 3-point opportunities. The forwards have been lifted high in the zone, giving opponents an unconventional look that isn’t conducive to finding open shooters.

“The big number we look at are (3-point) attempts per game and how many times we can turn you over and those are two things we preach every day,” Gallo said. “It’s good to see what we preach has kind of come to fruition.”

Additionally, Merrimack has been cautious about attacking the offensive glass, with 6-foot-8 freshman Jordan Minor (16.4% OReb Rate, 15th nationally) as the only one around to produce a significant number of put-backs. That’s completely by design according to Gallo – get back on defense so the opponent doesn’t get an easy basket in transition.

“We crash one, sometimes two guys,” Gallo confirmed. “We’re defending so well in the half-court, we don’t want to give people cheap transition opportunities.”

Lastly, Juvaris Hayes gives Merrimack a unique aspect of the attacking zone. His ability to “freelance” and hunt out turnovers has frustrated opponents for as long as he’s been a Warrior. Gallo elaborated further: “We give him freedom to go make plays and gamble. I think the other four guys on the court have gotten so good at being in position that we allow (Hayes) to just use his instincts.”

Trying to account for Hayes on the floor can be problematic, as a mystique has developed with Hayes jumping the gap and disrupting passing lanes seemingly out of nowhere.

All in all, the Merrimack zone will likely give NEC opponents fits once league play commences. It’ll be fascinating to see how it shakes out depending on the opponent, but for now this veteran squad is shaping up to be a defensive juggernaut.

Mount St. Mary’s

The Mount was struggling to get their newcomers to gel, especially on the defensive end at this point a year ago. Through December 1 of 2018, the Mountaineers gave up well above 1.00 ppp in their first six of seven contests, while allowing their opponents to shoot 54.4% from 2 and 40.1% from 3. All of those games were decided in double figures, and only once did Dan Engelstad’s group take a lead into halftime. It was, suffice it to say, a rough November, but those were expected growing pains with a green roster that concluded the 2018-19 campaign sans a single upperclassman.

Fast forward one year later, and the Mount’s defensive prospects have drastically changed for the better.

D-PPP eFG% Defense Turnover Rate 3PA/FGA
2019-20, 1st Month 1.00 49.5% 18.9% 34.5%
2018-19, 1st Month 1.15 56.5% 15.7% 35.7%

When you pull out the guarantee games and look at just mid-major competition, the same trends still mostly apply.

D-PPP eFG% Defense Turnover Rate 3PA/FGA
2019-20, 1st Month 0.94 49.1% 19.0% 39.1%
2018-19, 1st Month 1.05 49.4% 16.1% 30.6%

The Mount has improved in virtually all aspects across the board – they are forcing their opponents to take tougher shots, they’re extracting more turnovers and in some cases suppressing long-distance opportunities, a Utah State 3-point attempt barrage last week notwithstanding.

The obvious answer for the vast improvement is experience. Engelstad and his staff have more time to teach their fundamentals and concepts to an unchanged roster now loaded with second and third year players. Furthermore, each returnee has reaped the benefits of adding bulk to their physique – Nana Opoku, Damien Chong Qui and Vado Morse are living examples of that. Opoku, in particular, has added an estimated 40 pounds of muscle to his frame since he set foot on campus prior to the 2017-18 season!

Physicality and experience aside, the effort level both mentally and physically has become far more consistent according to Mount St. Mary’s associate head coach Will Holland. “I think the biggest thing is they understand – there still are little hiccups – but they understand how hard they need to play every possession,” Holland said a few days after the team’s decisive road victory over Howard. “(Last season) we just didn’t know how to put together a full 40 minutes of how hard (to play) and the attention to detail you need on every possession.”

In truth, that positive metamorphosis was evident last February, with the Mount winning four of their last seven games. The communication began to improve, the attention to detail was followed, and freshmen such as Chong Qui, Opoku and Malik Jefferson became more in tune with what the coaching staff was trying to implement. 

Heading into his second season, Jefferson has been markedly better at staying on the floor, reducing his foul rate by close to half from 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes to 3.8. It’s led to a better conditioned Jefferson seeing the floor in 67% of the Mount’s minutes, which is a clear benefit in limiting opponent’s second chance opportunities. Through seven Division I games, Jefferson is grabbing 21.5% of the opponent’s misses, good for 214th in all of Division I basketball.

The playing time increase is a direct correlation to the work that Jefferson, like the rest of the roster, put in this offseason. “I think that’s the biggest thing with him, he’s improved his conditioning,” Holland said. “He’s gotten stronger, but he’s always been in the right spots.”

Jefferson’s lowered foul rate is also an embodiment of the Mount guards keeping their opponents in front of them on defense. Last year, there were too many times where Jefferson had to act as the second line of defense once his guard teammates were beat off the dribble. That seems to be happening less now, further prolonging Jefferson’s impact on the floor.

It didn’t take very long, but it appears the Mount Mayhem brand of basketball originally incorporated by Jamion Christian is back after a one-year rebuild. Given the Mount’s depth and speed, it’s fair to assume the Mount will be a contender in a crowded NEC field, thanks in large part to its defense.

CCSU Celebrates Triumph on Special Day at Arute Field

Mike Mushaw’s selfless act saved a baby girl’s life.

Prior to Central Connecticut’s NEC football home game on November 9, Mushaw had the opportunity to meet that child face to face for the first time.

Accompanied by her family, young Eleanor joined Mushaw for the game’s opening coin toss.

A little more than two years ago, Mushaw entered a bone marrow donor registry and submitted a DNA sample through the “Be The Match” program. After discovering he was a perfect match with someone in need, Mushaw donated marrow in July 2018.

More than one year later, the recipient of that donation is doing well and has become a loyal supporter of CCSU football.

With the recipient and her family in attendance at Arute Field, Mushaw, fittingly, tackled SFU quarterback Jason Brown on the last play of overtime for a victory-clinching sack.

Hartford Courant columnist Mike Anthony recently provided an inspiring recount of the entire story that you can read here — Central Connecticut football celebrates life of young girl that junior linebacker Mike Mushaw saved by becoming a donor 📰

 

TWEET SHEET

 

#NECWBB: Warriors Prove More Than Ready for Division I Debut

Denia Davis-Stewart

 

Welcome to NCAA Division I basketball, Denia Davis-Stewart.

In Merrimack’s inaugural Division I game, the senior forward victimized Atlantic 10 member UMass with a triple-double.

Davis-Stewart poured in a game-high 31 points to go along with 13 rebounds and 12 blocks in a 79-64 road win.

The versatile post player, who was dominant on the defensive end, put her long-range shooting ability on display at UMass’ Mullins Center. Davis-Stewart, who went a perfect 7-for-7 from the charity stripe, sank 4 of 6 three-point attempts.

The senior’s performance was only the 14th triple-double ever recorded by a NEC athlete and it marked only the third time that a double-digit blocks total was part of the equation.

Merrimack sophomore Kate Mager also accounted for a memorable season debut. The sophomore guard shot 67 percent from downtown en-route to 22 points (no UMass player scored more than 17).

As a team, Merrimack shot 48.3 percent from the field while limiting the opponent to a measly 33.8 percent success rate.

It was already bound to be an historic night with Merrimack, which competed in the Division II NE-10 Conference last season, tipping off the four-year NCAA Division I reclassification process. Davis-Stewart, Mager and the Warriors simply made it that much more memorable.

 

 

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