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Woe to Bryant, Last Winless Div. I School

Feb 14, 2010 – 11:30 PM
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John Walters

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SMITHFIELD, R.I. -- "What we are experiencing is almost completely unavoidable," says Tim O'Shea, the head coach of the last winless basketball team in Division I. "I diagnosed the problem immediately: we just don't have the offensive talent to compete."

Bryant University (0-26) ranks last in the nation in scoring offense (51.7 ppg), but it is the transition game that has crushed them this year. The Bulldogs, formerly a Division II program, are in the second year of a four-year transition period into full Division I status. They are ineligible for both the NCAA tournament (granted, not a concern this season) as well as their own conference (Northeast) tourney until the 2012-13 season.

The upperclassmen were recruited to play at the Division II level at the Smithfield, R.I., school. Take senior point guard Chris Birrell, for example. As a freshman Birrell tried out at the University of Rhode Island but was cut. He transferred to Bryant, then a D-II program, where he made the team and now leads the Bulldogs in assists and steals. And yet Birrell, the playmaker who is second on the team in minutes played, has only attempted 10 free throws in 26 games.

"I try not to look at these stats," says O'Shea, who played at Boston College and had a successful eight-year run at Ohio. "It's pretty disturbing."

Last Thursday the Bulldogs shot 1 for 22 from behind the arc in a 60-34 loss to St. Francis (Pa.). On Saturday, Bryant hosted Robert Morris, the first-place team in the NEC (18-9, 13-1). A lay-up by freshman forward Claybrin McMath (an Australian; four continents are represented in Bryant's eight-man rotation) put Bryant up 39-35 at the 10:12 mark of the second half, but the Bulldogs would only score three more points (a desperation heave as the shot clock expired) the rest of the way in a 52-42 loss.

"They play hard," says Mike Rice, the coach at Robert Morris. "They just don't have a scorer."

Bryant did have a scorer -- senior forward Cecil Gresham was averaging 14.5 points when a knee injury felled him after eight games (he can redshirt and return next season). Now nobody on the roster averages in double figures.

"It's all part of the journey," says O'Shea, who led Ohio to the NCAA tourney in 2005 and to a victory over North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2002.

It is a journey that provides colorful snapshots. Last Thursday the Bulldogs drew students by doing a "student stimulus" promotion, essentially raffling off $500 to any student who attended the game. The cash prize came out of O'Shea's own pocket.

Then there's Michael Chroney. Last year a Bryant assistant coach discovered the then-sophomore playing intramural ball.

"He could dunk and, let's face it, we needed bodies for practice," says O'Shea. What Chroney lacked in basketball I.Q. he compensated for with effort, so much so that, with Bryant winless after eight games, O'Shea said, "(Bleep) it, I'm starting Chroney at Yale tomorrow."

In his first collegiate start, Chroney, 6-2 power forward, got a double-double. "He was our leading scorer (13 points) when we played at Indiana," says O'Shea with a grin. "Granted, that's not saying a lot."

From intramurals to having your name announced as a starter at Freedom Hall. That's life at Bryant these days. Next year, however, Gresham returns and a point guard transfer from Ohio University, Frankie Dobbs, will be eligible. As will 7-0 freshman center Alex Herzing, also red-shirting this season.

"If I weren't excited about our recruiting and the team we have next year," says O'Shea, "I'd throw myself off the Newport Bridge. It's okay. I've been in coaching 26 years. Nobody's winning because their X's and O's are superior. You have to have talent. Next year we'll have more."

Enter Samhan

Despite losing twice on the road this weekend, St. Mary's is that sleeper team we're kinda, sorta, maybe semi-excited about to advance to the Sweet 16. The Gaels (21-5) possess three traits that, for programs that do not traffic in one-and-done talents, are absolutely essential come March: three-point shooting prowess, reliable free-throw shooting and an outstanding center.

A Catholic liberal arts school based in Moraga, Calif., St. Mary's is one of only two schools (Cornell is the other) that ranks in the top 10 nationally in both three-point percentage (41.2 percent) and three-pointers per game (8.6). The Gaels heave it and they hit it. They are also third in the nation from the line at 76.7 percent.

Then there's 6-11, 265-pound senior center Omar Samhan, who resembles the bouncer at every club you've never gotten into. Samhan, long the most-hated player at every West Coast Conference venue he visits, leads the WCC in scoring (21.6 ppg), rebounding (11.1) and blocked shots (2.9). He is second in FG percentage (55.5 percent) despite having taken 50 percent more shots than any other player ranked in the top 10.

Samhan is particularly loathed at Gonzaga, where the Kennel Club (i.e. student section) showers him with chants of "Spo-kane hates you!" That's due in part to Samhan's mammoth physique and villainous beard, and also because he once invaded the Gonzaga huddle to inform them they were in for a tough game.

Last Thursday night it was the Gaels who were in for a tough game in Spokane, as the Zags won by 19. Still, Samhan had game-highs in points (21) and boards (11) and followed that up in Saturday night's overtime loss at Portland with an 18-14 effort. Come March, keep your eye on the Gaels, in particular Samhan.

Magee Whiz

You may never have heard of Herb Magee. You may not even have heard of Philadelphia University (formerly known as Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science). But that would only mean that you aren't from Philadelphia.

On Saturday Magee, 68, won his 900th collegiate game, all of them at Division II Philadelphia U., which also happens to be his alma mater. A legend in a city whose hoops community is famously tight-knit, Magee played high school ball with future St. Joe's coaches Jimmy Lynam and Jim Boyle. Known as the "shot doc", he has mentored everyone in Philly hoops from Charles Barkley to Jameer Nelson with their jumper. Though only 5-10, Magee is still the No. 3 all-time scorer at a school where he starred some 45 years ago -- before the era of the shot clock and the three-point arc.

Magee is now in his 43rd season as coach at Philadelphia U. Thirty of those seasons, this one included, were 20-win campaigns. He could pass Bob Knight (902 wins) as the all-time, all–division leader in NCAA victories as soon as February 23, when the Rams host Goldey-Beacon College.

Head Games

Syracuse Post-Standard columnist Jeff Kramer liked the big head cardboard silhouette of Orange coach Jim Boeheim so much that he had one made of himself. Cost of the five foot-by-three foot placard, courtesy of the Syracuse Blue Print Company: $290.

As for big-headed, the Orange won't have to worry about that after Sunday's 66-60 home loss to unranked Louisville.

Show Us Your Better Half

Viewers who were anxious to watch one of the better match-ups out west this season -- No. 15 New Mexico at No. 23 UNLV -- were unable to see the broadcast until the start of the second half. The game was telecast on CBS College Sports TV, which also operates The Mountain (the MWC's 24-hour network), but it was preceded by a women's game between No. 24 TCU and Utah. That contest went into four overtimes before the Horned Frogs won 105-96.

In the men's game, the Lobos won 76-66, even though they were outscored 38-36 in the half that viewers saw. New Mexico (23-3) has won nine straight and may be headed into the top-10 with upcoming games against MWC bottom-feeders Wyoming and Air Force.

State of the Sport

Five of the 10 players named to start in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game -- Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire -- never played college basketball. Two more, Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade, played two years of college basketball and a third, Carmelo Anthony, played one (Anthony, who played at Syracuse, is the only starter to win an NCAA championship). The only two starters who played four full seasons of college hoops did not grow up in the United States: Tim Duncan and Steve Nash.

That Guy

Remember that dude who hit the game-extending buzzer-beater in the Minnesota high school state championship game from the seat of his pants a few years ago? He now leads Division I in three-point shooting percentage.

Blake Hoffarber of Minnesota is shooting just one errant shot below 50 percent (69 of 140), although all of his attempts have come from an erect position. Hoffarber and the Golden Gophers, with bad losses this week to unranked Michigan and at Northwestern, are NIT-bound unless they advance at least to the Big Ten championship game.
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