NCAA tournament West region: No. 6 Arizona 81, No. 11 Belmont 64: Something to prove

Arizona senior Mark Lyons, trying to shoot around Belmont's Brandon Baker, finished with a game-high 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

In the middle of a 1-29 season two years ago, Bryant University coach Tim O'Shea was greeted by an upbeat tone.

"Some guy in Indiana said, 'You've got some nice weather out there,'" O'Shea said. "It's (almost) January, and we're from New England. He said, 'Oh. I thought you were from Texas.'"

Essentially, that conversation is why the Bulldogs, a transitioning Division I team now with the No. 337 RPI out of 344 teams, are showing up today to play Arizona.

For Bryant, a private Rhode Island school founded around business education, today's game is about marketing as much as money.

It's up to the Bulldogs to help create awareness of their educational mission through athletics. That's why they began the arduous transition from Division II in the first place three years ago.

"The point is you've never heard of Bryant, and that's the reason we're playing some of these games," O'Shea said. "The grand scheme, the move to Division I has a lot to do with attracting students. We want people to know we are a great school located in a beautiful part of New England."

Already this season, Bryant's fourth as a transitioning Division I member, the Bulldogs played in a tournament at San Diego State, picking up their only win of the season (against UC-Davis) and staying within 12 points of the Aztecs.

They have played at Notre Dame, and all over New England, while returning to the West today to further their mission - and provide a small token of appreciation to Board of Trustees president Michael Fisher, now a Tucson retiree who supported the move to Division I.

"It was a strategic issue but the board had to be fully on board with it and understand all the ramifications," Fisher said. "We did it with the proviso that, particularly with the coaching staff, we're not going to just win at any price."

Of course, any form of winning isn't easy for a team in transition from Division II to Division I. O'Shea is 19-81 in three-plus years, though the Bulldogs were 7-11 against Northeast Conference competition last season.

Here's some detail about Bryant's experience so far:

• The Bulldogs' first Division I recruit was O'Shea, who won 20 games in his final season as Ohio University's head coach but had a home in Rhode Island and a yearning to return to New England. Even if some job security was necessary.

O'Shea: "I signed an eight-year contract. Most schools who make these transitions usually take 10 years. In the early years they get beat up."

• The move hasn't been easy, but at least it was a bargain. Bryant handed over to the NCAA a $15,000 application fee in June 2007, just two months before the fee was raised to $1.4 million, and an eight-year waiting period was required.

O'Shea: "Our president said if you have a choice between being lucky and smart, always choose lucky."

• Bryant, which isn't eligible for the postseason until 2012-13, cannot recruit conventionally in its backyard, instead aiming for international players and transfers.

O'Shea: "When you start out with a four-year postseason ban, it's hard to recruit. Every kid thinks they're going to play in the postseason. When you recruit here, you say, 'Come to Bryant, and you'll never play in the postseason.'"

• There are four international players on this season's Bryant roster and only two players from New England, yet the cultural differences aren't what they used to be.

O'Shea: "It's not like it was 20 years ago. Nowadays, because of Facebook, the Internet and YouTube, you find a kid coming from the Ukraine, Israel, and they adapt. The language and the way these kids talk, it's already out there. They're getting it before they arrive because of the social media. Skype is amazing - we have a kid from Israel, and he's able to see his family every day on his laptop. It's amazing how technology has made the global village smaller."

• Bryant's best players may be transfers Joe O'Shea (Holy Cross) and Dyami Starks (Columbia), but they are sitting out the required redshirt season.

O'Shea: "I feel very fortunate. I work for an athletic director that understands it's a difficult process. You don't see any junior college players on the roster, and we've gotta get kids who are high-end students as well as good basketball players. But that's also one of the nice things working here. I do work with high-character kids."



• Who: Bryant University at Arizona

• When: 5 p.m.

• TV, radio: Ch 58, FSAZ; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)