After a three-win season in 2018, the Bryant Bulldogs needed to change course. Apart from some short-lived success from 2013-15, their Division I tenure had been marred by 20-plus loss seasons — seven of them in 10 years.
Enter Jared Grasso.
After serving as the associate head coach at Iona from 2010-18, Grasso was tasked with building a culture of success in Smithfield.
“It was our players understanding what I’m about, what my expectations and standards were,” Grasso said of his first few days on the job with his new stable of players. “I explained to my guys what my expectations were, what the standards I was going to hold them to. Then them having to live it out every day was the adjustment of, ‘Oh, he wasn’t joking. We are going to have to work this hard, we are going to have to go this long.’”
For Grasso and players alike, the adjustment period was an ever-evolving process.
“There’s that question of, ‘Does this guy know what he’s talking about?’ They don’t know me, I don’t know them, they’re feeling me out,” Grasso said.
But once the standard was set, the mission became clear: 12Seven4.
“This is every single day,” Grasso said. “We say 12Seven4; 12 months a year, seven days a week, four hours a day. That’s real. That’s really what I believe.”
In his first season on the sideline, Grasso led his team to 10 wins. It might not sound like much but they won just three times the year before. He was named a finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award.
But those 10 wins didn’t come quickly. After a 2-7 start, Grasso knew that he’d need to change his tactics.
“[On] Dec. 12 we lost to Hartford, we came upstairs and talked a couple of days as a staff,” Grasso said.
It was in these meetings where the staff decided their current style wasn’t working and a new approach was cultivated.
“I coached out of my comfort zone last year and I think we won some games because of it,” Grasso said.
Before the changes were made, Grasso and his team was giving up 84.2 points per game. In four of these games, Bryant had allowed the opposition to score 90 or more. After the change, it occurred just three times in the remaining 20 games.
“I came in wanting to play a certain style and play a certain way,” Grasso said. “We tried to for our first five, six, seven games and we couldn’t. We couldn’t play that fast, we couldn’t shoot that many threes so we scrapped it.”
Grasso felt a fast-paced style of play wouldn’t work and went a different route with a different approach entirely.
”We’re going to eat the ball. We’re going to play in the half-court. We’re going to try and play in the 50s and 60s, we’re going to have to manage games to try and win games.”
“Players are players.”
This season, one thing about the Bulldogs has been evident: The team moves as one.
Bryant currently has two players scoring in double figures with senior Adam Grant (19.0 PPG) and freshman Charles Pride (10.6). Not far behind are redshirt junior Ikenna Ndugba (9.3), and freshmen Benson Lin (9.0) and Michael Green (8.8).
And this isn’t even mentioning that Hall Elisias, who transferred from New Mexico Junior College, is one of the top shot blockers in the country; he has recorded four games with six or more blocks.
“I don’t get overly caught up in freshman, sophomore, junior, senior [titles],” Grasso said. “I say it all the time: players are players. If you have a swagger and a confidence and a toughness to you, I don’t care how old you are or what year you are. I evaluate my guys every day on what they do.”
Heading into the season, the Northeast Conference Preseason Poll had Bryant pegged to finish sixth. Now as the calendar flips to 2020, the Bulldogs have the most wins headed into NEC play and are starting to earn the rep as a top-tier team in the league.
With so many starting to change their tune on the Bulldogs, Grasso is clear on his stance towards pundits ready to recalibrate their rankings.
“I don’t get caught up in any of that stuff,” Grasso said. “That stuff means nothing to me. I’m very play-by-play, day-by-day, practice-by-practice. We worry about the moment and being caught up in the moment.”
Embracing Growing Pains
When seeing the Bulldogs play, it’s clear there’s an edge to them — something that normally takes years to cultivate and grow within a team.
And yet, it hasn’t even been two full seasons.
”I think we’ve expedited some of the process in terms of wins and losses,” Grasso said. “We have so much room to grow and our guys understand that.”
Even with a close call against Rutgers and a hard-fought showing against Maryland, Grasso knows how difficult maneuvering a season can be as the days drag on.
”There’s such parity in our league that every night is going to be a battle,” Grasso said. “I can talk to my new guys about that. I don’t know if they completely understand it, but they’re going to learn in a few weeks that the intensity levels in those games are the same as playing against Rutgers — nothing different.
”They have to grow through that and there could be some growing pains because of it but for us, we need to peak in February and March and to do that we need to get better today, tomorrow, and just keep getting better every day.”
So it seems the more locked in Grasso becomes on the process and the more the player’s buy-in, the ultimate endgame becomes more clear.
”It’s not going to be about one game, one season; we’re trying to turn this into a program.”
It just takes work. 12Seven4.