The name of Maryland's next opponent might not strike fear into many Terps followers, but the Bulldogs' head coach just might. Tim O'Shea, in his first season at Bryant, spent the previous seven seasons at Ohio University. You all remember Ohio, right? The team that upset the Terps about a year ago?
Well, this time around O'Shea's squad does not contain quite the threat level that perhaps last year's did. Bryant (located in Smithfield, Rhode Island) is in its first season as a Division I-A program, having previously competed at the Division II level. The Bulldogs (1-9) have played a difficult schedule so far, one full of road contests against the likes of Connecticut, Iowa, Boston College, Rutgers and Providence.
"One of the intriguing things about taking this job was the whole opportunity to shepherd a team into Division I and, in terms of just getting people to know who Bryant University is, it's been a big deal," O'Shea said Wednesday in a phone interview. "One of the reasons we've played such an ambitious schedule has been to get Bryant University's name out there. We want to, in this first year, establish a Division I identity. Obviously when you make a transition from Division II to Division I, you can't be fixated on the win-loss record because it's a difficult transition. Because the majority of the kids we have, practically all of them, were recruited to play at the Division II level. Now, some of those kids are better than that, but we still certainly aren't at the level of talent that you would find in the ACC or the Big East or the Big Ten."
One player who has proven capable of playing well against Division I competition is junior swingman Cecil Gresham (6-foot-5, 205 lbs.). Gresham leads the team in scoring with 15.9 points per game and is shooting 41.5 percent from three-point range. In games against UConn, Boston College and Providence, Gresham averaged 20.7 ppg.
"He's one of those kids who's really been able to make the adjustment to playing Division I basketball, and what I'm really pleased about is that I have him back next year," O'Shea said. "So when I add my first class of Division I recruits, I'm also going to have a guy who's proven he can score 20 (points) a game at the Division I level."
Junior point guard Chris Birrell (6-foot-2, 185 lbs.) previously had a brief taste of Division I competition when he attempted to walk on at Rhode Island in 2005. After failing to make the team, Birrell played at the Community College of Rhode Island in 2006-07 before transferring to Bryant before last season. This year, Birrell has tallied a team-high 34 assists and 18 steals, while scoring 6.0 ppg.
"He's a solid player," O'Shea said of Birrell. "He's a hard-nosed kid, he works really hard and he handles the ball well. In terms of hustle, you couldn't coach a kid to give more hustle than he does."
Hustle hasn't necessarily been the issue for Bryant, however. Routinely facing opponents whose composite skill level far exceeds their own has been the main problem for the Bulldogs. Bryant is turnover prone (118 assists, 140 turnovers), defensively deficient (opponents are shooting 46.9 percent from the field) and often overwhelmed on the boards (-11.2 average rebounding margin).
"Probably the biggest difference between a Division II program and a Division I program is the size and the length," O'Shea said. "The kids are just bigger and stronger. Let's face it, there are a lot of different levels of Division I, and we've played a majority of our games against teams from the highest level of Division I. And that's where the size differential can be really dramatic, and it's presented a real challenge for us rebounding the basketball."
Senior center Jerrann Wright (6-foot-7, 215 lbs.) is averaging just 3.4 rebounds per game. Senior swingman Andrew Lyell (6-foot-5, 200 lbs.) is leading the team with 4.0 rebounds per game. Gresham is second with 3.9 rpg.
Despite the many disadvantages Bryant will face when it takes on the Terps on Saturday at Comcast Center, O'Shea said he's excited to return to College Park. He played for Gary Williams for two seasons at Boston College and served as a graduate assistant under Williams at B.C. for another year after that.
"Last year, I had a pretty good year at Ohio," O'Shea said. "You know, we came in there and played well and were very fortunate to come away with a win. I'm not coming in with the same type of team this year, but I look forward to playing against Coach Williams. He's a big part of the reason I'm a coach. Having played for him and having been his graduate assistant, he gave me an opportunity at a young age to get into the coaching business. So I look forward to coming back down there and competing against his team."
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