Top 68 Team Previews: #29 Belmont Bruins
Rick Byrd's Bruins are the heavy favorites in the Atlantic Sun this season.
By Mark Cunningham
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Last Season: 30-5 (19-1)
Key Losses: Jordan Campbell, Jon House
Head Coach: Rick Byrd
PG: Drew Hanlen 5-11 Sr.
SG: Ian Clark 6-3 Jr.
SF: J.J. Mann 6-6 So.
PF: Trevor Noack 6-7 Jr.
C: Mick Hedgepeth 6-9 Sr.
Key Reserves: Scott Saunders 6-10 Sr. C, Kerron Johnson 6-1 Jr. PG, Blake Jenkins 6-7 So. SF, Brandon Baker 6-6 Jr. PF, Spencer Turner 6-3 Fr. SG
After 14 seasons of being a Division I member institution, Belmont is on the precipice of breaking through and recording its first NCAA tournament victory. March success from Rick Byrd's Bruins would certainly bring Music City Madness to Nashville.
Jordan Campbell and captain Jon House, the lone holdovers from Belmont's heartbreaking loss to Duke in the 1st round of the 2008 tournament, are now gone. The pairing combined for 11 points in 34 minutes in our nation's capital that night and remained consistent the duration of their collegiate careers, teaming for almost 14 points in 40 minutes per game for the Atlantic Sun champs last season.
A-Sun members are counting down the days until Belmont bolts for the Ohio Valley Conference in 2012. The Bruins have hoisted the regular season and tournament banners in four out of the last six seasons and cruised in last year's conference title matchup over North Florida by a staggering 41 points. Belmont joined the Atlantic Sun in 2001 after having been Independent for five seasons.
Paramount to the Bruins' 30-win campaign was the change in philosophy from Byrd. As the head coach embarks on his 26th season in Nashville, he sits 10th in wins among active coaches with 610 and only five coaches have been at their respective program longer. Byrd's philosophical switch was in how he juggled his rotation. Eleven Bruins logged double-digit minutes in 2010-11 and nine contributed 5+ points per game. To truly understand the equal distribution of minutes, know that Ian Clark led the team with 24.6 per game. Byrd rarely kept players on the court for more than four minutes at a time, or a TV timeout. Defensively, the fresh-legged Bruins pressed opponents into 19 turnovers per game.
A center duo of Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders enables the Bruins' sharpshooters plenty of quality looks from outside. Rarely in foul trouble, the tag-team tandem combined for 20.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 39.2 minutes each time out last season. The Atlantic Sun recognized their hard work with second-team all-conference honors. Along with point guard Drew Hanlen, the two senior centers will be looked to for senior leadership. To Bruins fans' ears, the music is sweet after an August trip to Italy.
"Our biggest concern is we can't lose the edge that we had and held throughout last season," Byrd told CBSSports.com. "There was not a game that our guys weren't ready to play and weren't excited about playing. There wasn't a drop-off. The things that made us good a year ago were still there, in terms of attitude and unselfishness. We saw those same characteristics."
At the point guard spot, the aforementioned Hanlen is the starter. However, backup Kerron Johnson performed much better than Hanlen in the team's 14-point loss to Wisconsin in the Round of 64. Yet, it's hard to argue with Hanlen's 2.8:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which keeps him tabbed as the starter.
Clark, the A-Sun's top freshman in 2009-10, will see some added depth at shooting guard. Belmont's freshman class consists of one deadly outside stroke from Bloomington, Ind., Spencer Turner. Thanks to Byrd's constant shuffling, expect Turner to make an immediate impact off the bench.
As part of the Maui Invitational, Belmont opens its season in Durham with a shot at revenge versus Duke. Four days later, an in-state visit to Memphis awaits. Competitive contests, if not an upset, would instill enormous even more confidence in a team that doesn't lack any. A home-and-home with Marshall is slated for late December. The Bruins haven't lost at their Nashville home, the Curb Event Center, since the 2010 A-Sun quarterfinals.
The question here isn't whether Belmont will win the Atlantic Sun, but whether or not they'll shake off a singular conference loss to Lipscomb last year and finish their final season of A-Sun play undefeated. Don't be surprised if Byrd's Bruins are favored in a tournament game come March.