The name Phil Martelli is synonymous with college basketball. Martelli Sr. spent 24 seasons as the head coach at Saint Joseph’s, was named the 2004 AP Coach of the Year, and is currently the associate head coach at Michigan.
Now his son, Martelli Jr., is in his first season as a head coach. After five years on the staff at Bryant, he was elevated to head coach just days into the season.
He has the Bulldogs off to a strong 6-6 start, and much like his father, loves being a part of college basketball.
“When you grow up around [college basketball] and you see the good and the bad of it, still there’s something about it that gets in your blood,” Martelli said. “Even on nights when you feel down and you’re disappointed [after a loss], there’s something about that feeling you just don’t want to lose so it’s definitely in our blood.”
Martelli Jr. began the season as interim head coach while Jared Grasso was on a leave of absence. Following a gritty 66-57 loss at Rutgers in the third game of the year, the interim tag was removed as Grasso stepped away and Martelli became the ninth head coach in program history.
Just six days after the loss to the Scarlet Knights, the Bulldogs picked up their first win against a Division-I team by beating No. 10 FAU 61-52 on the road. It marked the program’s first-ever upset of a nationally ranked team.
In the win, Bryant was led by Sherif Gross-Bullock with a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds to down the Owls, earning him America East and Mid-Major Madness Player of the Week honors.
“It was a great moment [for the program],” Martelli said. “It gives you some early validation that we’re on the right path. Now beating [FAU] was not the ultimate goal for the season. It was a great moment, but it can’t be the great moment.”
In that sentiment, Martelli talked about the development he’s seen from his team following the win as the Bulldogs look to build on that momentum.
“We’ve grown a lot as a team just in the last month or so,” he said. “Coming together and blending new guys with returning guys, we’re beginning to trust each other more, and that’s huge. Especially when you’re trying to get the best out of the group, they need to trust each other, and I’m seeing more and more of that.”
To make it consecutive victories, Martelli and Co. followed the upset with a 67-61 win over Howard, an 2023 NCAA Tournament team, behind 19 points from Earl Timberlake.
“It was the response after [FAU] of having to play Howard on a quick turnaround at home after a tough travel back, that told me more [about this team] than the actual FAU win,” Martelli said. “That spoke volumes about who they are and where they are and how we’re coming together.”
While Xavier put a stop to their run with a 100-75 thrashing, the Bulldogs returned to rattle off three straight with victories over DIII Springfield, Brown and Siena.
On Saturday night, Bryant visited Stony Brook and despite an 86-75 loss, Martelli saw yet another opportunity for growth.
“It’s one of those games where you lead for 28 minutes and lose the game [because] we didn’t make enough plays,” he said. “[Defensive struggles] are the one thing that hasn’t happened to us yet but like everything you’ve got to learn from it. If we learned from it tonight, that’s [important] in January, February and March, when we’ll be able to look back and say this night helped us.”
Led by a versatile cast, Martelli knows this team can compete with just about anybody in the nation and won’t be overlooked regardless of who the opposition is.
“We have a lot of talent,” Martelli said. “That’s not a problem for us. I’m very confident with us as a group. We’ll have a chance in every game because they’re defending, [and] they’re staying locked in. I’ve got full confidence in them and their teammates have full confidence in them.”
With college basketball lineage and success in his blood, leading these Bulldogs comes naturally to the first-year head coach. Behind him at the helm, Bryant is primed for continued development during the Martelli Jr. era in Smithfield, R.I.