Dating back to their Atlantic Sun days, Belmont has played in the NCAA Tournament for three straight years. To make it four, they’ll almost certainly have to do something not done in the Ohio Valley Conference since the 1998-99: win back-to-back OVC tournaments.
There have been back-to-back regular season champions since then. Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay both did it, Murray State won three in a row. But those programs couldn’t find a way to win in Nashville (or the one year it was held in Louisville) twice in two seasons.
Of course, Belmont has already broken one OVC streak; last season becoming the first OVC team in five years to lose their first game at the NCAA Tournament.
This season, the Bruins begin their quest for the rare two-peat without two cornerstones of that three-year run. Kerron Johnson graduated, as did Ian Clark, who just last night scored his first NBA points, a three-pointer of course, against the Brooklyn Nets.
But Belmont’s never been a one-trick pony. The Bruins have won 20 games seven of the past eight years, and finished no worst than 2nd in their conference during that run. In fact, outside of their first ever season in the Atlantic Sun, Belmont has never finished worst than third, and never won fewer than 12 conference games.
You can make the argument that the Atlantic Sun isn’t the OVC, but there few if any teams in this, or any conference, with a better 10-year run than the Bruins.
But history doesn’t mean anything now. Because it can all change in a flash.
It’s not about new faces, but new roles for old faces
After graduating five guys last year, who made up 63% of the Bruins scoring, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking this year’s team might lack experience. But head coach Rick Byrd doesn’t see it that way.
“We’ve got a lot of experience to be honest,” Byrd said. “J.J [Mann] is a fifth-year senior, Blake Jenkins is a fifth-year senior. Reese Chamberlain is a fourth-year junior. We’ve certainly — what we’ve got is a bunch of guys that have been role players, now they’ve got to be the Ian’s and Kerron’s.”
That transition is especially important for J.J. Mann, the team’s only returning double-digit scorer a year ago. Mann spent much of his time in the 3-guard spot, coming off screen for open shots on the perimeter. But this year that could be much different.
“[Mann] will certainly be a more primary offensive weapon for us,” Byrd added. “J.J.’s not going to blow by you with the dribble, but he can put it on the floor and make good decisions. He’s got a quick release, he’s got great range, and he’s shot the ball very well so far in practice, so he’s going to be important.”
There are also a few lesser known players who will see extended minutes this year, although some are more experienced than others.
“Craig Bradshaw played behind Ian Clark last year, he’ll be a sophomore,” Byrd said. “Bradshaw is going to be a good player for us for three years to come now. Got a couple of freshman that are playing a lot right now: Evan Bradds, from Ohio is a 6’7 wing player; Nick Smith a 6’8 four-man from Arkansas. Both those kids are going to play a lot as true freshman this year. ”
Last year’s weaknesses are this year’s weaknesses
Statistically, Belmont wasn’t just one of the best teams in the conference. They were among the best in the nation. The Bruins ranked in the top-25 nationally in all the following statistical categories:
- Field goal percentage (49.1%, 5th)
- Two-point field goal percentage (56.9%, 1st)
- Three-point field goal percentage (38.3%, 21st)
- Assists per game (15.6, 21st)
- Offensive points per possession (1.098, 14th)
- Turnovers forced per game (16.7, 8th)
There are a few more obscure non-tempo statistics I didn’t even include in that list. Offensively, especially, the Bruins were among the elite. Defensively, the Bruins were solid, generally in the top half among defensive categories.
Then there was rebounding, a nightmare of an issue that manifested itself in the Bruins lopsided NCAA tournament loss to a much bigger Arizona team. The Bruins ranked ninth in the OVC in rebounding, and were in the 75-percentile nation-wide. Knowing how much of an issue that was throughout the season, one would hope that’s been solved.
Only it apparently hasn’t. When I asked about how this team was from a rebounding perspective, Byrd’s answer only came after a lengthy pause.
“I think it’s still an issue for us,” Byrd said. “I think it, potentially — Chad Lang is a seven footer we have that hasn’t played very much yet. He’s been playing better as of late. We’ve got his presense inside, all of a sudden, it’s a big difference. Drew Windler is 6’9. Nick Smith is 6’8, he’s a freshman. We’ve got more size than we had, we need a little more bulk and strength inside.