The past months have yielded a series of unexpected and unfortunate events inside Belmont basketball that begs the question: where can the program go from here?
The COVID-19 crisis was the first thing to stun the Bruins. Following a season full of adversity, they punched their ticket to the Big Dance — but their efforts fell short in a matter of days.
Because after the Bruins won one of the most nail-biting battles the Ohio Valley Conference had ever seen, the NCAA decided to cancel the tournament in its entirety.
The team’s three seniors — Seth Adelsperger, Micheal Benkert and Tyler Scanlon — had just won the first postseason OVC championship of their careers. But they were denied the chance to represent the OVC in the NCAA Tournament, left only to dream of the possibilities that now lie out of reach.
As the Bruins shook off the pain of having their ticket snubbed, their focus shifted to preparing for the 2020-2021 season.
And although most off-seasons are quiet for Belmont basketball, this off-season took an unexpected turn. In July, two of Belmont’s best shooters shocked students and fans by announcing they planned to enter the transfer portal.
Rising redshirt senior Nick Hopkins made his announcement on July 10. Hopkins spent three years at Belmont, serving as one of the Bruins’ clutch shooting options off the bench.
Two weeks later, starting guard Adam Kunkel announced on Instagram he would also be entering the transfer portal. Kunkel was the best shooting option the team had, with his lethal three-point shot providing the necessary lift the Bruins needed in their first season without Rick Byrd on the sideline in 33 years.
He led the team in scoring and was the leading three-point marksman, so that makes two outstanding shooting guards gone in less than a month.
An off-season like this one could break a lot of teams.
However, there still seems to be hope for the Bruins — and that lies in the returning leaders of the group, the redshirts who haven’t yet shown their talents, and the impressive recruiting class of 2020.
It’s important to note only two of the five starters are returning this season.
The losses, due to graduation and the transfer-portal, nearly emptied the cabinet for the Bruins when it came to leadership and experience.
But the two starters left still have skills — skills that suggest the bridge between this season and the last won’t be difficult to cross.
Those returnees are juniors Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy, and both are a beacon of hope for a team rocked by change.
Their performances in the 2019-2020 season helped carry the Bruins to a 26-7 overall record and a 15-3 record in the OVC. Both also became decorated athletes in the OVC over the course of the season.
Murphy, point guard and trusty leader of the offense, averaged 9.8 points per game shooting 52.2% from the field. His efforts during the season earned a spot on the All-OVC first and tournament teams, as well as being selected as the OVC Defensive Player of the Year. Moreover, he held the national title as leader of rebounding at the point guard position.
He’s made it known he’s relentless on both ends of the court. His ability to read his opponent’s defense, breaking to the basket and shutting them down at the other end of the floor, makes him a double-headed monster keeping enthusiasm for the Bruins high.
And Muszynski, at center, averaged 15.3 points per game at nearly 60% from the field. He was also selected on the All-OVC first and tournament teams, and earned the title as OVC Tournament Most Valuable Player after putting up 25 points, leading the Bruins to their first OVC championship in four seasons.
His confidence in the paint makes him unguardable, and his ability to shoot from behind the arc at 32.7% as a 6-foot-11 center makes him one of the most versatile players in the OVC.
Along with the two starters there are plenty returning reserves that, though fans only got a small taste last season, carry immense potential to fill the empty spots of the Bruins starting lineup.
Juniors Caleb Hollander and Tate Pierson have shown the audience glimpses of their shooting ability in the minutes they played last season. Sophomores Ben Sheppard, Mitch Listau and EJ Bellinger who, although young, are also athletic, qualified options for the Bruins.
Although their minutes were limited, each made the most of them and have proven themselves valuable to the Bruins bench as efficient reserves. They have high potential — and that makes them great options for starting positions .
There are also quite a few players returning this year who decided to redshirt last season. Although they have kept their spots on the roster, we have yet to see what they can truly do on the floor.
Redshirt sophomore Derek Sabin is a great option at forward for the Bruins. In the 2018-2019 season, he appeared in 18 games as a small role with limited minutes. However, he decided to redshirt for the 2019-2020 season. At 6-foot-9, he has the ability to provide fantastic defense and plenty of buckets under the basket.
Redshirt freshman Michael Shanks was recruited by Belmont as a freshman in the recruitment class of 2019. Standing at 6-foot-6, he’s a forward that has the potential to be impactful in both shooting and exploding to the basket.
And although he isn’t technically a redshirt, junior guard Luke Smith was forced to the bench last season for the Bruins due to the NCAA transfer rules. Smith transferred from the University of the South — better known as Sewanee — after two years with the program.
There, he helped bring their program to new heights, leading them to a winning record and their first NCAA Division III tournament appearance since 2008. He led the team in points per game at 20.1, and shot from the three at 43.4%, making him a great contender to take the shooting guard spot left open after Kunkel’s transfer in the off-season.
Belmont’s recruiting class of 2020 consists of three very impressive athletes who all had an amazing high school career prior to college.
Frank Jacubicek comes to Belmont as a forward out of Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois. In his senior year he led his team to the best season record his conference had ever seen, and brought his school their first regional championship since 2001.
In-game, he averaged 15.1 points, eight rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots per game. He adds another notch to the Bruins potential height advantage in the OVC standing at 6-foot-8.
Even Brauns is a center out of Iowa City West High School in Iowa City. He comes to Belmont after being tagged as the No.2 recruit in the state of Iowa in his class, according to ESPN.com, along with other great organizations.
In his senior year, he led his team to a winning record of 22-3 while averaging 15.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Standing a 6-foot-9, he also provides a great height advantage for the Bruins.
The most anticipated recruit of Belmont’s 2020 class is JaCobi Wood, a guard out of Cleveland High School. Among many accolades, he was named 2020 Class AAA Tennessee Mr. Basketball after being recognized as one of the top perimeter players in the South East.
He led his team to be the No.1 ranked team in the state of Tennessee and its best season record in his highschool’s history. He averaged 29 points per game in his senior year, along with six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
His ability to score is further proven in the fact he reached over 1,000 career points after putting up 50 points in a single game, and later putting up a school single-game scoring record of 53 points.
Wood is a fantastic option to lead the offense if need be, and an amazing addition to the Bruin offense as a whole.
It’s unclear where exactly the Bruins are headed this season. Coach Casey Alexander has only spoken of the uncertainties regarding team roles and dynamics that lie ahead, as the team has only come together in recent weeks.
As practice continues, and Alexander spends more time together with his team, he will surely find the best among his players to consider for the starting options. The good news is, he has plenty of highly qualified options to choose from.
One thing Alexander knows for certain is that each member of the team carries with them the notion they will remain a top contending team in the OVC — and they work immensely hard to do so.
This article written by Julieann Challacombe.