After winning the Ohio Valley Conference title in their first year in the league and reaching the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row, the men’s basketball team is gearing up for a successful 2013-14 season.
“This time a year ago, I had no idea how good or bad our team would be and it’s pretty similar this year,” said coach Rick Byrd.
Last year, Ian Clark, Kerron Johnson and Trevor Noack were responsible for nearly 58 percent of Belmont’s total offense.
This season, Byrd believes JJ Mann, Blake Jenkins and Reece Chamberlain are players who are ready to step into leadership roles.
“You do replace, every year. The year before we lost three all conference players. That’s part of the value in having guys in the program for four years, having guys with experience,” Byrd said.
The Bruins will play 14 regular season games against teams that reached the postseason in 2012-13.
“I think at least on the front end, this is the hardest schedule we’ve ever had,” Byrd said.
In playing top-tier teams such as North Carolina and Kentucky, Byrd recognizes that reaching .500 outside OVC play is going to be a difficult feat.
“Even with last year’s team or the team that went 30-5, three years ago, those numbers would not be possible with this schedule,” Byrd said. “We’ve got a lot of good teams on the road and plenty of good teams at home.”
The Bruins will host VCU in December, possibly marking the first ranked opponent to enter the Curb Event Center.
“I think it’s great that we’ve got a program as good as they are and is preseason ranked and will probably be ranked when we play them,” Byrd said. “I guess it’ll be the first ranked team we’ll ever have in here if that happens that way. It’ll be a big afternoon for our program, a very, very difficult game.”
Currently, Belmont boasts winning 41 out of their last 42 home games, the third-longest active home court winning streak in the nation.
“We’ve proven to play well at home, but I think I’m more proud of the way we’ve played on the road frankly. Coaches and players don’t really think about that stuff. We show up and play,” Byrd said.
This year’s squad welcomes seven freshmen–the most to start a season since the ‘01-’02 campaign.
“Nick is one of two true freshmen that will play. He’s a big guy that can shoot threes, Evan Bradds at this point may be the other freshman who may even play, he’s a good, mature player,” Byrd said.
This year’s backcourt will feature All-OVC preseason nominee JJ Mann and Reece Chamberlain, while Spencer Turner, Craig Bradshaw, Jeff Laidig and Caleb Chowbay will take on expanded roles.
Freshmen Evan Bradds, Austin Luke and Burton Sampson will be learning the ropes of Byrd’s motion offense.
“We lost two great guards, but that (perimeter play) will still be an asset for our team. They’ll be a different kind of player, but still focusing on that perimeter,” Byrd said. “This is a good passing team, an unselfish team and those will continue to be assets for us.”
In the front court, Blake Jenkins and Drew Windler will be working hard in the paint. This tandem will be supported by Chad Lang, Holden Mobley, Nick Smith, Tyler Hadden and Josh Lester.
The team will open the season tomorrow against Lipscomb for part one of the annual Battle of the Boulevard rivalry.
“Number one, it’s two of our games, it’s our opener and we need to be prepared for it. I think outside, people take more stock out of that than those of us on the inside do,” Byrd said.
What’s unique this year is that former Belmont assistant coach Casey Alexander is now at the helm of the Bisons.
“I think anybody that is a Belmont fan that knows Casey like most of us have, are thrilled,” Byrd said. “I’m happy for Casey, but I’m happy to win twice and I know he feels the same way.”
OVC action will begin in January as the Bruins will host Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech.
Murray State and Tennessee State will come to the Curb Event Center in February in the heat of conference play, leading up to the OVC tournament at the beginning of March.