Belmont men’s basketball’s quest for the Missouri Valley Conference championship tips off on Friday.
The fourth seeded Bruins will face the winner of Indiana State University versus the University of Evansville at 2:30 p.m. in St. Louis for their Valley tournament debut.
Sitting with a 21-10 record, Belmont is in elite company with Gonzaga University and the University of Kansas as schools with 13 consecutive 20-win seasons.
But none of that matters when the tournament rolls around.
Head coach Casey Alexander knows every game stands alone.
“I don’t think anybody is going to say we’re the best team in the league right now, but we’re capable of beating anybody,” Alexander said after the Bruins’ 20th victory in the final home game of the season. “Obviously when you get in the tournament you’re talking about one game at a time, and one game at a time we can beat anybody.”
Preview Belmont’s journey through the 2023 State Farm MVC Tournament with the Vision’s Landen Secrest as he gives five things to watch for as the Bruins take the court at the Enterprise Center.
1. Ben Sheppard’s response
Averaging 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists for the Bruins, Sheppard was named First Team All-MVC and a member of the All-MVC Defensive Team.
But he did not receive the conference’s most prestigious honor, the MVC Player of the Year.
That award went to Tucker DeVries of Drake University, who edged Sheppard as a top scorer in the conference.
When thinking about why Sheppard finished as the runner-up, there is one obvious reason. Drake went 2-0 against the Bruins in the regular season, with both losses coming by double digits.
DeVries missed their matchup inside the Curb Event, but when two teams faced off in Des Moines, Iowa, Sheppard outdueled the 6’7 sharpshooter.
But Belmont lost.
Sheppard and the Bruins will have a chance for redemption against the first-seeded Bulldogs – but only if they make it to the championship game.
2. The Bruins’ point guard tandem
In March, every team needs a floor general.
Fortunately for Belmont, it has two.
Will they be able to co-exist on the court when coach Alexander goes with a small lineup?
We will find out.
Ja’Kobi Gillespie enters the tournament with momentum after scoring a career-high 24 points at the University of Northern Iowa, earning MVC Newcomer of the Week honors.
Averaging 9.4 and 2.1 rebounds this season, the Bruins’ sixth man was named to the MVC All-Bench Team.
Keishawn Davidson is Belmont’s starter.
He is a veteran with a methodical approach, something that will be essential in the tournament.
The Bruins will benefit if both lead guards continue to play their roles by facilitating, scoring and defending the other top guards in the Valley.
3. Cade Tyson
Ever since his buzzer beater versus Ohio University in the first game of the season, Tyson has been on an upward trajectory.
Entering the tournament as the Bruins second leading scorer, the 6’7 wing will likely benefit from being guarded by the opposing team’s second-best defender.
When Sheppard can’t get it going, will Tyson be able to fill the void?
That may be a lot to ask of a player getting his first taste of a conference tournament.
But Tyson is not a regular freshman.
He’s the MVC Freshman of the Year.
4. Can Drew Friberg get hot?
Friberg is a sharpshooter.
He currently ranks third in the nation for 3-point shooting, draining nearly 46% of his shots from behind the arc.
The Bruins will need Friberg to continue knocking down deep shots if they want to be successful.
The 6’7 sniper had highs of seven threes versus Georgia State and six against Bradley over the course of the season.
But he also had two outings where he failed to make a shot from downtown, both against Drake.
Belmont likely cannot afford an off-shooting night from No.12 in the tournament.
At times this season, the Bruins have lived — and died by the three.
Friberg will be a key in how the pendulum swings.
5. Even Brauns is the x-factor
Belmont doesn’t exactly run offense through its big man anymore.
Instead, this season, Brauns has embraced his role as the defensive anchor and made the most of his offensive touches when he gets them.
In the tournament, he will have to face off against top forwards and centers like Rienk Mast and Malevy Leons of Bradley University, Robbie Avila of Indiana State, and Darnell Brodie of Drake, if the Bruins meet the Bulldogs in the championship.
Each game will be a battle in the paint as every Valley team has a steady big man who can do a combination of scoring, rebounding and defending.
Brauns is the x-factor for the Bruins.
He needs to impact the game in multiple ways if Belmont wants to be successful. Belmont controls its own destiny
The conditions are simple – Belmont must win three games if it wants to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The ball is in the Bruins’ court.
“We have to physically and mentally be ready to hold our ground,” Alexander said.
— This article was written by Landen Secrest