All numbers in the Stat Box are from the 2013-14 season
There aren’t many teams that could legitimately complain about getting picked second in their league. But when you’ve won six of your last seven conference titles across two conferences, it’s a bit of a strange position to be in.
That’s where we find Belmont.
The players we knew– Ian Clark, Kerron Johnson, J.J. Mann — the architects of the last two OVC regular season titles, are no more in Bruins blue. The next guys up? We know who Craig Bradshaw is. Belmont fans, and some others know Reese Chamberlain. But in relative terms — the names we’re used to seeing, that names that no coach wants to scheme against are gone.
That’s not a slam on Bradshaw or Chamberlain — they’re good players. But few are comparing either to those names, at least yet.
Of course, this is still a Rick Byrd coached team we’re talking about here. No one’s going to sleep on Belmont — no matter what names are on the jerseys.
Wright State is in a similar position. The Raiders are coming off back-to-back 20+ win seasons, but this year’s team look nothing like last. Wright State’s four top scorers, and five of the top six, all graduated last year; In all, it’s more than two-thirds of the Raiders points gone.
But unlike Belmont — none of those guys were superstars. All five of those seniors averaged between seven and 12 points a game — and three returners averaged between five and eight. It was a team centered around balance — which can be tough to beat if you’re not balanced yourself.
Also unlike the Bruins: this is program coming off major distractions in the offseason. One player was dismissed following an arrest. Another cited for drunk driving, a third for underage drinking.
The top returner is a 6’6 junior in J.T. Yoho. Last season, he bounced in-and-out of the Raiders starting lineup. That likely won’t be the case this year. Yoho had a bit of a sophomore slump: His scoring average rose ever so slightly, but his three-point shooting dropped from 42% to 36%. (UPDATE: JT Yoho is suspended for the first few games this season.)
Inside, 6’10 JUCO transfer Michael Karena is an interesting case. His numbers weren’t gaudy last year, but he recruited by some solid mid-major schools. Reportedly — he played through injury as a sophomore. If he’s healthy, and given Belmont’s well-documented issues with size over the past few seasons, he could provide a challenge for the Bruins defense.
For the Bruins, Bradshaw has an opportunity for a real breakout year, but he also faces the challenge of the seeing defenses hone in on him — whereas they were much more distracted with Mann a year ago. No one’s doubting his ability to score: shooting 50% from the field last year, and averaging north of 15 points a game. He did a much better job as a sophomore drawing fouls, which you want from an 81% free-throw shooter.
What’s really scary: Bradshaw still has two years.
Chamberlain really grew at the point last year. He averaged 5.5 assists a game over the season, but that number jumped to 7.2 over his last 10 games. His scoring took a bit of a knock during that stretch, but double-digit assists, which he notched twice, is more important than double-digit scoring.
There’s no one expecting Belmont to flatline this season. They may not be favorites, but there’s little doubt that Belmont will be in the conference title conversation come February. But after missing the NCAA Tournament last year — the Bruins have higher expectations than another regular season championship. They want to return to the Big Dance, and get out of the second (read, first) round. Winning games like this, on the road, even in November, can give the Bruins an early boost towards those goals.