In the last few minutes of Belmont’s blowout win over Jacksonville, sophomore point guard Kerron Johnson bobbed his head, clapped his hands, and licked his lips as he squared up on defense after another Belmont score. Johnson, who led Belmont with 15 points, embodied the persona of what Belmont head coach Rick Byrd calls the most competitive team he’s ever coached.
“They are really having fun playing the game and how we’ve been playing and how hard we are playing,” Byrd said. “It’s the make-up of our team. Everyone is unselfish.”
The Bruins are riding a six-game win streak, beating opponents by an average of 20.5 points. On Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Belmont (14-3, 5-0) faces one of its biggest challenges yet when they take on Lipscomb (9-6, 3-2)—their biggest rival and the Atlantic Sun preseason favorite. Unlike last year though, the Bruins are rolling and the Bisons are reeling.
“We can’t get overconfident, but at the same time it is a confidence booster beating teams the way we have,” Belmont center Scott Saunders said.
After all, the Bruins crushed Jacksonville—who beat Lipscomb by four a few nights earlier. But the “transitive property” doesn’t work in college basketball, especially not during the Battle of the Boulevard.
“Anyone who says it’s just another game, he’s not telling you the whole story,” Saunders said.
Coach Byrd said last year’s two losses to the Bisons would be in the back of Belmont’s minds.
“It’s no fun to lose twice to anybody, much less your biggest rival,” Byrd said. “So I hope that motivates them, but then again, they haven’t needed a lot.”
Belmont-Lipscomb Preview w/ Lipscomb Sports Radio Network’s Benjamin Seamon
Once again, the Belmont Vision has teamed up with Lipscomb Sports Radio Network’s Benjamin Seamon to bring you an in-depth look at Thursday’s game from both sides of the Boulevard. Lipscomb responses are by Seamon, Belmont responses by Pierce Greenberg.
What is the biggest difference from both of these teams a year ago?
Lipscomb: I believe the biggest difference this season for Lipscomb is the addition of two freshman guards. True freshman Robert Boyd and redshirt freshman Brandon Barnes contribute significantly to the Bisons backcourt rotation and will often start at the one and two spots which allows senior guard Josh Slater to play the three spot.
Both Barnes and Boyd are athletic guards known for their defense. Barnes is a tremendous rebounder and Boyd does a great job of running the Bisons offense. Both of these guys have added to the depth of the Bisons backcourt and will only get better as the season progresses.
Belmont: Two words: Depth and attitude. Get this stat: against Jacksonville, Belmont’s bench outscored JU 55-50. Belmont is stocked full of capable players and fresh bodies. The benefits of going 12-deep are two-fold. Not only does it help with in-game substitutions, but it also has a benefit in practice. “The plus part of that is we can afford to practice harder,” Coach Byrd said. “We can do more things full speed.”
Belmont’s 12-player rotation has forced players to take lesser roles and play fewer minutes, but the entire team has bought in. Like Byrd mentioned, the unselfish attitude has been fun to watch.
What to watch for when Lipscomb has the ball: When Lipscomb has the ball they have to watch out for turnovers. With a veteran team like the Bisons, you would not expect a significant amount of turnovers. However, this season Lipscomb has found themselves on the wrong end of many unforced errors.
The Bisons have also had very productive offensive outputs this season. Capable outside shooters such as Jordan Burgeson and Michael Teller compliment drivers like Boyd and Barnes. The reigning Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Adnan Hodzic anchors the Bisons offense. Over the offseason, Hodzic added an outside portion to his game. He can shoot mid range jumpers and also the three ball if left open. And of course, Josh Slater does a great job of doing a little bit of everything. He can take the team on his shoulders when everything else seems to be going wrong.
What to watch for when Belmont has the ball: The Bruins have put together efficient offensive numbers all season long. They rank No. 1 in the conference in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. If Belmont can get good ball movement and wear the Lipscomb defense down, they should be in good shape.
Jacksonville tried to use their athleticism to throw a couple of different presses at Belmont—and the final score showed how well that worked. So, Lipscomb could very well try to make this a half-court game (much like they did last year in their 64-53 win over the Bruins.) If so, the Bruins need to knock down their shots—especially from long-range. Belmont hasn’t lost when they shoot over 42% from behind the arc.
Lipscomb: It is tough to talk about the Battle of the Boulevard without talking about Josh Slater. We always joke about how Rick Byrd will probably want to be there to give Slater his diploma in the spring because of how well Slater has played over the years against Belmont. There is something about big games and rivalry games that get him going.
Something about playing in a hostile environment gets Slater going. Even if you are a Belmont fan, you have to appreciate his competitiveness. He is a true competitor and leader for this team.
Belmont: Eight of Belmont’s 12 players haven’t beaten the Bisons. After the Bruins won three straight games in the series between 2008 and 2009, Lipscomb as rattled off three straight wins. Belmont has proven a lot so far this year. 14-3 is an accomplishment, but this group of players has made it clear that they expect to win every game they play.
Belmont is, quite simply, on a roll and they will have a rowdy, student-filled Curb Event Center on their side.
One Matchup to Watch:
Ben: I am going to be keeping an eye on the matchup down low between these two teams. Scott Saunders and Adnan Hodzic should be a fun battle to watch this year. Belmont will devise a scheme to try and slow Hodzic, and I will be watching to see what the Bisons coaching staff does to try and adjust to the way Belmont plays him. The Bisons will also have to adjust defensively to stop Saunders. He is a talented post player with good moves.
Pierce: I’ll be watching the match-up between Ian Clark and Josh Slater. The most underrated aspect of this year’s Belmont team has been Clark’s defense. Even though the numbers don’t show it, he’s been blanketing people all year long. However, it will be interesting to see if Byrd goes with a longer defender (like seniors Jon House or Jordan Campbell) to contain Slater. Regardless, big-time players step up in big games. I expect Slater and Clark to make their fair share of plays.