Belmont had long been known as “defending Atlantic Sun champions.” In fact, that was their title for their last two years in the conference, having won at least a share of the title the last three. Everyone knew that Belmont would quickly contend for an Ohio Valley Conference title. But few expected it to happen so soon.
And even fewer, if any, expected them to look so dominant while doing it.
While the Bruins made the transition to their new conference with ease, things ended as they always have for Belmont: a quick, round of 64 loss in the NCAA Tournament. But for a school still in it’s second decade of Division I basketball, the Bruins have distinguished themselves as a mid-major team on the rise, already courting offers, stated or otherwise, to make yet another move.
A private school in a large city is quite the get indeed.
But before the Bruins measure for another OVC banner, there’s quite of lot to work to do. The Bruins must replace their all-time leading scorer, Ian Clark; OVC Tournament hero Kerron Johnson, and in all 63% of their league leading scoring.
It’s hard not to have full faith in the Bruins, a team whose 26 win season this past year is their lowest win total in the past three years. But this rebuilding effort, in the midst of a tougher conference, could be a big challenge, even for such an experienced head coach in Rick Byrd.
Last season, Belmont was a rare breed in college basketball: A great team, that was also incredibly fun to watch. Scoring may be down across the nation, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the Bruins high-efficiency attack, which if given enough time seemingly could always find an open shooter.
But there was a glaring weakness as well, one that proved to be their downfall in the NCAA Tournament: physical play. When facing a team with a physical frontcourt, the Bruins struggled in the paint, not only to score but to rebound. Terrific shooting bailed them out time and time again in conference play, but when the shots weren’t falling, the Bruins mightily struggled against bigger teams like Kansas and Arizona.
This year’s team, on paper, very much mirrors last year’s. J.J. Mann is a great three-point shooter, and a solid ball-handler and passer as well. He can not only run the offense at the guard spot, he’s a great catch-and-shooter when needed, and can defend the 3 or even 4 slot. He will have to carry a larger load this next year, but there’s no reason to believe he’s not capable of doing so.
A player whose name teams would be wise to remember is Drew Windler. A 6’9′ forward from Samford, Windler spent the last season on the Bruins bench per NCAA transfer rules. Winder, though, is anything but a traditional 6’9″ forward. In two years with the Bulldogs, Windler shot 42% from 3-point range, making him a perfect fit inside Byrd’s 3-point friendly offensive scheme. He’ll be paired up with a more traditional forward on the inside, 6’7″ Blake Jenkings.
After another great year, expectations surrounding this Belmont team will be high once again. For the seniors that have graduated, the pressure was clearly never an issue. The question is will that hold for this group now taking the reigns.
Can Belmont fix their rebounding issues?
It’s not likely with their current roster. While Windler is a great 3-point shooter, he averaged just 3.8 rebounds as a sophomore, despite playing 26 minutes a game. Jenkins is a solid option on the inside, and while the Bruins have a 6’11” player in Chad Lang, he played just 82 minutes last season. They’re going to have to get a lot of help from the guards, like Mann and Reece Chamberlain, but against bigger teams, I see this team struggling in much the same fashion.
Can J.J. Mann replace Ian Clark?
I think a lot of people are expecting him to, and Mann is a great three-point shooter in his own right, but asking anyone to replicate the kind of season Clark have is a tall order. Defenses this past season weren’t focused on Mann like they’ll be this year, and you have to remember Clark had Johnson to help run the offense. If Chamberlain can emerge as a true point guard, Mann should some opportunities. But it’s still quite a lot to ask.
Does Belmont repeat?
That really is the true burning question with this team, isn’t it? I’ll save the answer for the end of the preview, but here’s a cloaked, unclear answer: The OVC is not likely to be as strong as a whole this year as last, which obviously works in the Bruins favor, but there are a few unexpected teams in the middle of the league that are clearly on the rise, and could challenge the Bruins for the crown. The question is likely going to come down to firepower: Will the Bruins score enough points to make up for other deficiencies.