New Year, Same Story for BelmontPosted by David Changas on November 21st, 2013
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Lipscomb and Belmont in Nashville.
When he lost his three leading scorers to graduation, including standout guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, many assumed that Belmont coach Rick Byrd would see his team take a step back from last year’s OVC championship squad. But this is Rick Byrd, and rebuilding at this point in the program’s existence is no longer a concern. As evidenced by Sunday’s win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, his latest group is once again likely the team to beat in the OVC, and a return to the Big Dance for the seventh time in nine seasons appears to be a distinct possibility.
On Wednesday night, the Bruins backed up their win over the Tar Heels with a resounding 94-64 thumping of cross-town rival Lipscomb in the season’s second “Battle of the Boulevard,” giving Belmont its NCAA-best 22nd consecutive home win. And in getting off to a strong start that includes not only the North Carolina win, but also a home victory over an Indiana State team that crushed Notre Dame in South Bend, Byrd’s squad is proving that it has simply reloaded. Now led in the backcourt by the solid duo of Reece Chamberlain and Craig Bradshaw, both of whom saw valuable minutes last season, Belmont relies on a stronger front line than it had last season. J.J. Mann, whom Byrd recently called one of the hardest workers and most competitive players he’s coached, proved his mettle by hitting the game-winning three against North Carolina. The senior forward looks poised to lead the Bruins in scoring this season, and his role as a vocal leader has increased with the departure of Johnson and Clark.
The Bruins have also benefited from the play of newcomer Drew Windler. Windler, a transfer from Samford, was a third-team all-SoCon performer as a junior in 2011-12, and his presence in the middle is something Byrd did not have last year. In the early going, he’s the team’s second-leading scorer, and his range allows him to keep defenses honest. The Bruins also get contributions from experienced senior Blake Jenkins, and Byrd is using the early season to develop a solid supporting cast. Freshmen Evan Bradds, Caleb Chowbay, and Nick Smith all appear to fit in Byrd’s system, and will be vital to the Bruins’ quest to represent the OVC in the NCAA Tournament.
Though not as perimeter-oriented as last year’s team, this year’s Belmont squad is in many ways no different than previous versions. Like all of Byrd’s teams, the Bruins are efficient on the offensive end, as they move the ball well and get plenty of open looks. While they haven’t shot the ball as well as Byrd would hope from the perimeter thus far (33.9%), they make more than half of their two-point attempts in averaging 84.0 PPG. The Bruins also appear to be balanced. Nine players average at least 10 minutes per contest, and each appears to be an important contributor. Last year’s team relied so heavily on Johnson and Clark that it struggled on the rare occasions on which the guards were not scoring. While Mann is the unquestioned leader of this year’s squad, Byrd has multiple options on the offensive end. And with the addition of Windler, the Bruins appear to be more effective on the glass than in the past. Belmont also appears to have not missed a beat in the chemistry department, as the Bruins are gelling more quickly than could be expected of a team with so many new contributors.
So while the rest of the OVC was glad to see Johnson and Clark graduate, it won’t be happy to see that Belmont hasn’t missed a beat. The road to the league’s automatic bid will once again go through Nashville.