03/22/05 — Overachieving Bulldogs await Trojans in N.D.

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Overachieving Bulldogs await Trojans in N.D.

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on March 22, 2005 2:15 PM

SMITHFIELD, R.I. -- By any measure, the Bryant University men's basketball team exceeded expectations in 2003-04. They came within four seconds of earning their first-ever regional title.

Building on that success, the Bulldogs outdid themselves this season. They emerged the Northeast Regional champions and earned a trip to the mecca of NCAA Division II basketball -- the Elite Eight, which tips off Wednesday in Grand Forks, N.D. Bryant (23-8) faces East Regional champ Mount Olive College, which is also making its first appearance in the final eight-team field.

"There is excitement and concern at the same time," said Bulldogs coach Max Good. "When you get down to the final eight, they're all going to be very capable (of winning the title). We play in a league that's good and we had a lot of tough games this year."

The Bulldogs lost five consecutive Northeast 10 Conference games and owned a 7-6 worksheet less than two months into the season. Injuries to key players and mediocre performances caused concern in program that had finally escaped the league cellar -- a place it occupied for two-plus decades.

The players, coaches and fans didn't have much hope for the future.

Surely, they thought, the experience and confidence derived from a regional runner-up appearance should have led to greater success.

"(Our schedule) isn't like you have the grapefruit season where you can experiment and get ready for your conference, but our first games were against conference teams," Good said. "Every game after that (7-6 start) became a tournament game. As a coaching staff, we knew if we didn't fish or cut bait, there wasn't much to look forward to.

"We literally had to play every game in its own entity."

Bryant started an 11-game win streak on Jan. 15 with a 21-point decision against Assumption. Good's team finished 16-2 during a two-month stretch, which included 10 victories on the road. The Bulldogs entered the Northeast Regional as the No. 6 seed and shocked three higher-seeded teams en route to the title.

Finally, the disappointment of the previous year's regional defeat against Massachusetts-Lowell had turned into a sweet nectar of victory.

"It's been unwritten and unspoken. We tried not to talk about it and kept telling the kids we've got 30 games between now and then," Good said of the UM-L loss. "You just try to stay in the present, stay ahead of yourself and not dwell too much on the past. That was painful and also helped us get through the 7-6 start.

"If they had had little less fiber and little less character, then when we wouldn't have survived."

The Bulldogs' mid-season surge can be attributed to chemistry, hard work and unselfishness.

Once 6-foot sophomore guard Chris Burns and sophomore forward Dan Hammond returned off the injury list, that helped Bryant establish a strong unit to put on the floor. Burns shattered his cheekbone and missed several games, which depleted much-needed depth at the guard position since he could play either point or shooting guard.

Hammond, the team's 'glue' guy according to Good, brings energy to the court.

But neither is a prolific scorer. That honor belongs to junior guard John Williams, who has emerged the Bulldogs' top scorer in 22 games this season. Williams averages 20.6 points and shoots nearly 48 percent from the floor. The former Massachusetts prep standout leads the team in numerous offensive categories, including minutes played with 35.2 per outing.

Senior center Mike Williams is the team's third-leading scorer at 11 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. The 6-11, 230-pounder from Connecticut has claimed top rebounding honors in 20 of Bryant's 31 contests thus far.

"They both played well in the (Northeast) tournament," Good said. "They blended their talents at the right time and played their optimal level in the regional tournament, which was certainly timely."

Mount Olive (29-4) is also playing at its optimal level. One of the most-balanced scoring offenses in the nation, the Trojans create their offense off their defense. They average nearly 86 points per contest and yield 72, but that's because an opposing team gets its fair share of possessions in an up-tempo style game.

Good says a fast-paced game doesn't favor his team. The Bulldogs can't duplicate the Trojans' athleticism or their explosiveness, and must find a way to slow down the tempo. Mount Olive has scored 80-plus points in 24 games this season and surpassed the century mark on six occasions.

"It might not be wise to get into an up-tempo game with these guys," Good said. "When you're playing against superior athletes, that's probably the best thing to do. We'll wait and see. It's like a prize fight where you feel your opponent the first couple or three rounds, and hope you don't get knocked out.

"We try to take pride in every possession ... play against the game and not our opponent. But we do have the utmost respect for who we play. Even moreso now because every team you play now is good."