131st Battle of the Boulevard Goes to BelmontPosted by rtmsf on November 9th, 2012
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from tonight’s Battle of the Boulevard match-up between Belmont and Lipscomb.
They may be in a new league, and they may have lost their two biggest contributors in the post, but anyone who thinks the Belmont Bruins will do anything but contend for their seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last nine years is in for a rude awakening. As they proved by their 89-60 dismantling of their archrival Lipscomb on Friday, the Bruins will give OVC favorite and defending champion Murray State all they want in the Racers’ quest to return to the Big Dance. Belmont may have lost Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, its two leading rebounders and biggest bodies from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, but it returned one of the league’s best backcourts in Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark. Johnson is a classic pass-first point guard who uses his athleticism to break down defenses and can also score (he led the Bruins with 22 points on Friday). Clark is a prolific shooter with an unorthodox but quick release that is difficult to defend. The pair combined for 41 points on Friday, and it is reasonable to expect similar results throughout the season.
The most pleasant surprise Bruins coach Rick Byrd got from Friday’s win was the play of forward Trevor Noack. The 6’7″ senior averaged less than eight minutes per game last season, but hit double figures by the half and looked like a player who could be a consistent scoring option behind Clark, Johnson, and junior forward J.J. Mann. Belmont will be well-served by the athleticism of its backcourt, which will allow it to compete with the likes of Murray State and Tennessee State. Where the Bruins have questions is on the front line. While Noack’s offensive emergence is encouraging, Belmont will certainly struggle with talented big men – such as TSU’s Robert Covington – as it simply does not have much size on the interior. The Bruins play no one taller than 6’7″, and Noack and athletic frontcourt mate Blake Jenkins, a solid defender, do not offset their height disadvantages with much beef.
Another problem Byrd faces is his lack of depth. On Friday, 79 of the Bruins’ 89 points came from the starters, each of whom was in double figures. As with most of Byrd’s teams, these Bruins will be able to score. Whether the bench can contribute is questionable, and new options will need to emerge to allow this team to make noise in March. “I think we’ve got some guys that can do more if they need to,” Byrd said, pointing out that the Bruins stayed out of foul trouble on Friday.
While it would be foolish to reach too many conclusions after Belmont took care of an undermanned and rebuilding Lipscomb team in the 131st “Battle of the Boulevard,” Byrd has to be excited about his team’s potential. “We’re getting better athletes. We’re just not big and strong and deep inside.” The Bruins’ non-conference schedule is not particularly grueling – a December 15 visit to Allen Field House and Kansas notwithstanding – and as with most Byrd’s teams, expect this version to take a lofty record into its first voyage through the OVC. The competition it faces come January will be a step up from what it has faced the past several years in the Atlantic Sun. And while it may be more difficult to get to the NCAA Tournament, the battles it faces in conference will render it better prepared to advance if it gets there.
Ultimately, it is too early to tell whether its lack of size and depth will cost Belmont a run at a conference title. What is clear, though, is that the preseason expectation that it will challenge Murray State for the league championship in its first year in the OVC is justified. Assuming the Racers will waltz back to the Big Dance is something no one who knows what Byrd can accomplish should be willing to do.