The Belmont men’s basketball team started its season as champions, after going 3-0 at the Paradise Jam over Thanksgiving weekend.
Only nine Bruins were able to make the trip to Washington, D.C. due to concerns with COVID-19. But despite minimal rotation options, each win was a hard-fought group effort sure to keep coach Casey Alexander and Bruins fans confident heading into the rest of the season.
Due to COVID-19 complications Northeastern University, the third and final team Belmont was set to play, pulled out of the tournament for the well-being of its players. The team was quickly replaced by Queens University of Charlotte, a respectable Division II team.
In the season-opening matchup against Howard University, the guards of the group ran a clinic against Howard’s defense, with Luke Smith and JaCobi Wood shining in particular.
Wood, the Bruins’ most highly anticipated freshman, lived up to the hype by putting up 21 points as a starter in the first college game of his career.
And while it wasn’t Luke Smith’s first college game, the Division III transfer showed fans and skeptics alike exactly why he belongs on this Division I roster.
In his first start with Belmont, Smith put up 20 points while going 7-11 from the field and shooting 50 percent from three. Both Wood and Smith also had the most playing time totaling 35 minutes each.
Junior Grayson Murphy also made his season debut count with his first double-double of the season. He was all over the floor, tallying 14 points and 13 rebounds — which gave the Bruins the energy they needed after a slow start to the game.
Junior center and fan-favorite Nick Muszynski had a quiet night to start. He had a difficult job guarding top 20 player Makur Maker in the post. He did, however, seem more confident in the second half. After recording two blocks against the big man, Muszynski became Belmont’s Division I era blocked shots leader, while also totaling 15 points by the final buzzer.
Four different Bruins ended the night in double figures in the team’s 95-78 win to begin the season. The following day in its matchup against George Mason, the Bruins found winning strength in its big men, Muszynski and Caleb Hollander.
After a slow opening night for Hollander, where he put up just 6 points in 21 minutes, he showed up the next day fully confident and prepared. Against a tough Geroge Mason team, Hollander found his hot hand behind the arc going 3-4 — including a crucial three near the final buzzer — and putting up 17 points in total.
Muszynski had a similar night to his first, putting up an additional 17 points to Hollander’s, going 8-13 from the field. Guards Smith and Murphy also had a great night, both tallied another double-figure scoring game, with Murphy recording his second straight double-double.
Another notable factor to the Bruins’ success in game two was EJ Bellinger. Following an uneventful opening night, Bellinger contributed when the Bruins were down, putting up a trio of big threes to sharpen the team’s lead.
For two nights in a row, Belmont showcased the depth of its roster. Four different players put up double figures in this 77-67 win.
Fatigue played a role in the third, and final game of the tournament. However, the Bruins were able to turn out a win. The Bruins began the game uncharacteristically slow, going 0/9 from three until Smith and Wood hit back to back three-point jumpshots to help Belmont’s offense find some life.
From there, the matchup turned into another impressive night for the guards of the Bruins roster. Both Smith and Wood put up their third double-figure scoring game of the season, with Wood going 3-5 from the field and Smith putting up his season record of four threes.
With Muszynski in foul trouble for most of the game, he only put up 12 points for the Bruins going 5-8 from the field. On the defensive end, the Bruins have Hollander to thank for the 13 rebounds he grabbed that turned into points when the game was on the line.
This matchup marks the third straight game where at least three Bruins put up double figures in scoring for the team, and that contributed to a 73-61 win.
The most valuable player of the Bruins’ Paradise Jam tournament win was Luke Smith, a fresh face on the roster and to Belmont fans. He averaged 18 points and the most minutes played over the three games. In total, Smith put up nine threes including four in this final game against Queens.
Overall, the Paradise Jam showed exactly how deep the Bruins bench is, especially with fewer players to choose from than usual, giving Coach Alexander confidence and something to work off as the season progresses.
Moreover, it was the Bruins’ first opportunity to play in an official game in over nine months – something Alexander was grateful to give his team.
“It was a good trip for our players, we needed anything that resembled a game, our guys love to compete,” said Alexander.
The Bruins’ next opportunity to compete will be closer to home at Tennessee State University on Dec. 2. Tip-off is slated for 8 p.m.
This article written by Julieann Challacombe.