Even as the men’s basketball team moves to a new conference, they still hold the same expectation that led them to go to the NCAA tournament five of the past seven years.
“This is a program that expects to win year in and year out,” said senior guard Kerron Johnson. “That will continue to be our vision and goal no matter what conference we are in.”
With the Bruins’ move to the Ohio Valley Conference, they will face teams that have made it to the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament for the past three seasons. Last year, that team was Murray State, who was nationally ranked as they dominated the conference with a 31-2 season.
While the level of competition in the OVC may seem stronger, head coach Rick Byrd thinks it’s hard to say if it will be any different from the Atlantic Sun Conference they left.
“Overall the teams in the two leagues have been relatively even over the last five or seven years,” he said. “But I think it’s very safe to say that Murray State had a team last year and has had a program that is better than any we’ve faced consistently.”
The Racers were picked to win the conference’s newly formed West Division, and Belmont was picked to win the East Division in the OVC’s preseason media poll.
Despite the hype, Byrd has made sure his team is well aware that they haven’t won a OVC game yet, said senior guard Adam Barnes.
“We have a lot of work to do and prove,” Barnes said. “We’re really hungry since this is our first time in the OVC.”
Along with conference, Belmont will face out-of-conference opponents with NCAA tournament experience. In December, they will meet VCU, South Dakota State, and three-time national champion Kansas. In November, the Bruins will also face Stanford, last year’s NIT champion.
“I’ve always believed that the tougher schedule you play, the better it makes your team,” Byrd said.
Johnson said the schedule is exciting for the team because it’s an opportunity to show the program can compete with bigger schools.
“We want to show what kind of program this is,” Johnson said. “This is a fearless program that will go anywhere [and] play anybody on any given night.”
After losing starters Drew Hanlen, Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, Byrd is expecting a combination of players to step up, including JJ Mann, Blake Jenkins, and Trevor Noack. He also expects the freshmen to be ready to play.
Upperclassmen will be relied on heavily again this year, especially the senior class made up of Ian Clark, Johnson, Barnes, Brandon Baker and Trevor Noack.
“I don’t think you can underestimate how important it is to have good seniors,” Byrd said. “They practice the right way and show the younger kids this is way do things, this is how hard we practice, and this is how serious we take it.”
Guard: Belmont’s greatest depth lies in its backcourt. Johnson and Clark, who have combined for 2,246 points in the past three seasons, will return as starting guards.
Last season, Johnson averaged 13.8 ppg and shot 52 percent from the field. Clark averaged 12.7 ppg and shot 40 percent behind the arch. Clark also earned Atlantic Sun Conference Defender of the Year last season.
Barnes and sophomores Spencer Turner and Reece Chamberlain will also add to the depth at guard.
Forward: Juniors JJ Mann and Blake Jenkins return with the most experience as shooting and power forwards.
Mann played in all 35 games last season, averaging 8.3 points per game and had a team high 37 steals. Jenkins had 11 blocks last season and scored a team high 17 points in the Bruins’ NCAA tournament game against Georgetown.
Center: With the graduation of Saunders and Hedgepeth, this position will see more fresh faces than any other. Baker and Noack are both expected to fill their roles, with Noack moving from the outside to the post, Byrd said.
At 6’6”,Baker has made 17 starts in his career, averaging 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per game in his career. At 6’7”, Noack made 23 starts last year and all but one in the ‘10-’11 season. He averages 3.3 points and 2.2 per game for his career.