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Bryant sears to new heights, eyes first NCAA Tournament appearance

Led by fourth-year head coach Jared Grasso and the nation’s leading scorer, Peter Kiss, the Bulldogs sit just one game out of first place in the NEC

NCAA Basketball: Bryant at Houston
Peter Kiss leads the nation in scoring at 24.8 points per game. The senior guard looks for a second straight All-NEC First Team honor.
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Bryant University has competed at the Division-I level since 2008-09. In those 14 seasons, the Bulldogs have earned just two bids to a postseason tournament, both invitations to the College Basketball Invitational. With his best team since arriving in Smithfield, R.I., in 2018, head coach Jared Grasso is looking to rewrite Bryant basketball history. The Bulldogs are also guided by the nation’s leading scorer, Peter Kiss.

Tabbed to finish second in the Northeast Conference, the Bulldogs (18-9, 14-2 Northeast) are living up to the preseason expectations. Trailing conference favorite Wagner by just one game, Grasso’s squad is in prime position to capture at least a share of the Northeast Conference title.

In November, a Northeast Conference title was the least of the concerns in Smithfield. For a team whose season has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride, the Bulldogs’ postseason dreams could have been over before they even started.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Grasso said. “We’ve dealt with adversity with suspensions, a COVID outbreak and another outbreak in the form of the flu. We also struggled with our non-conference schedule while not at full strength.”

Bryant dropped three of its first four contests, including two blowouts losses to Rhode Island and Clemson and a demoralizing 81-75 loss to Bethune-Cookman (who is 337th in the KenPom rankings and 7-20 on the season).

Following a two-game win streak, the Bulldogs once again lost three consecutive games with the low point coming in the form of a 111-44 loss at Houston to begin December.

After finishing the non-conference slate with with a 4-7 record, Bryant has hit its stride, claiming their spot near the top of the Northeast Conference. The Bulldogs have won 13 of their last 14 contests, guided by the duo of Kiss (24.8 points per game) and Charles Pride (17.8 points per game).

The senior duo lead the Northeast in minutes played, while Pride ranks first in rebounds with 8.4 per contest. Grasso’s squad leads the conference in scoring (78.4) and rebounding (41.7). This rebounding mark is good for fifth in the country.

In his final year donning the black and gold, Kiss has transformed into the country’s leading scorer. Following stints at Quinnipiac and Rutgers, Kiss has found a home in Smithfield. He has tallied 25 points in nine consecutive games, trailing only Trae Young (14 games) for the longest such streak over the last 10 seasons.

“He’s as gifted an offensive player as I’ve ever coached,” Grasso said. “He can score at all three levels. We help put him in situations to be successful.”

Kiss earned First Team All-NEC honors in 2021 and scored at a clip of 16.6 points per game. Despite the personal successes, the sour taste of falling in the NEC championship game pushed Kiss and Pride to take their game to the next level.

“They have a chip on their shoulder,” Grasso said. “They’ve improved their game, their bodies and their basketball IQs dramatically.”

Grasso is finishing his fourth season at the helm in Smithfield. He spent the previous eight years at Iona, where he was associate head coach for a Gaels program that went to the postseason each year with five NCAA Tournament berths. He acknowledged that the culture he created at Bryant has served as a recipe for success.

“We have a great culture, and our best recruiters are our players,” he said. “We’re very honest and up front with the way we do things. There’s a standard. Good players want to play with other good players.”

Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Bulldogs have a chance to make history in multiple ways. With wins against St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner to close out the regular season, this year’s team will tie the Division-I program record for wins in a season and ensure at least a share of its first NEC title.

Wagner, who defeated the Bulldogs 84-81 in OT in their first regular season meeting, will head into the Chace Athletic Center on Senior Day. While Grasso understands the importance of the game and the celebration of the seniors, it reminds him of how far they’ve come.

“My first game, I could count the fingers and toes of the fans against Saint Peter’s,” Grasso said. “Now there’s a line out the door to get in. Credit to the players for the culture they’ve built and the success they’ve had.”

With the growth the program has taken under Grasso’s guidance, Bryant can cement itself as a mid-major threat across the country in the coming weeks.

“I came here to take Bryant to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “We just want to keep moving forward.”