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.