At the halfway point of the Belmont men’s basketball season, the Bruins have set themselves up well for a strong season and a possible NCAA tournament run.
The impact of redshirt freshmen Caleb Hollander, Grayson Murphy and Nick Muszynski has been one of the biggest surprises in the 2018-2019 season thus far.
Muszynski has been a near-perfect replacement for senior Mack Mercer, who withdrew from Belmont’s active roster after a season-ending surgery.
The freshman center is averaging 14 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 2.6 blocks per game.
Hollander and Murphy are both averaging 10.8 points per game, helping to fill holes left by 2018 graduates Amanze Egekeze and Austin Luke.
Murphy also leads the team in assists, averaging 6.1 per game.
Even though they’ve been successful this season, Hollander, Murphy and Muszynski are still young and, at times, a little rough around the edges, said head coach Rick Byrd.
“They’re certainly exciting young players with a lot of talent, but they still make a lot of freshman mistakes,” said Byrd. “We’ve never had a lineup with three freshman starting. I’ve got to understand that I need to exercise some patience with the mistakes they make.”
The young team, led by seniors Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain, tackled a tough non-conference schedule at the front end of the season.
The Bruins started off the season with a 6-0 record, which included wins against Illinois State, MTSU and Lipscomb.
After losing both matchups to Lipscomb in 2017, the Bruins took two very close games from Lipscomb in 2018.
The matchup challenged Belmont’s young squad both times, as the Bruins won the games by the skin of their teeth.
“They’re exceptionally good wins against a good team,” said Byrd. “It was extremely hard fought, and it felt like a chess match.”
One of the highlights of Belmont’s non-conference schedule came in early December, when the team took a road trip to UCLA to take on the West Coast Bruins for the first time since 2006. Belmont beat the Pac-12 powerhouse 74-72, thanks to a game-winning layup from McClain.
The Bruins were defeated only twice during their non-conference stretch, first by Green Bay and then by Purdue.
Though Belmont’s younger players have stepped up and played a large role in the team’s success early in the season, the Bruins have also leaned heavily on leadership from McClain and Windler.
McClain is having the best season of his collegiate career, averaging 13.2 points per game, 3.8 assists per game and 3.2 rebounds per game. The senior athlete has grown into an extremely important scorer, putting up 20 points against UCLA and 21 against Purdue.
Senior Dylan Windler is also looking to have one of his best seasons ever. The Ohio Valley Conference Preseason Player of the Year had his ups and downs through his final season but has held his place as one of the top players in the conference.
Windler is averaging 18.4 points per game, 2.4 assists per game and 8.9 rebounds per game. He leads the team in points and rebounds per game but has found himself in foul trouble in a handful of games where he failed to score more than 12 points.
Windler isn’t the only OVC player receiving conference and national recognition.
Murray State’s Ja Morant and Eastern Kentucky’s Nick Mayo have also made major waves nationally and in the conference.
The first time Belmont played EKU this season, the Bruins won 109-93, but Mayo still dropped 25 points. He’s averaging 23.6 points per game overall.
Morant has become one of the most prolific scorers in the country, averaging 23.1 points per game, 10.5 assists per game and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Morant is also receiving major NBA draft attention. He’s been picked as the best shooting guard in the 2019 draft by outlets like ESPN and Bleacher Report.
Teams like Jacksonville State — who already defeated Belmont once in its only conference loss of 2019 — and Austin Peay will be difficult for the Bruins to defeat. But Murray State and Morant will probably be the biggest roadblock standing between the Bruins and a conference title. Belmont will take them on for the first time this season on Jan. 24.
The matchup has even more significance for the Bruins since they lost to Murray State in the 2018 OVC tournament finals 68-51.
“You prepare for Murray State and whatever Morant does well,” Byrd said. “We have to do everything we can to make it tough for him to do what he does best.”
With a 3-1 conference record, the Bruins are preparing to take on Jacksonville State again on Thursday, in what could be one of the most important games for Belmont this season. The Gamecocks have been Belmont’s Achilles’ heel over the past two seasons, as the Bruins have now lost the last four meetings between the teams.
Austin Peay and its young, talented team — including OVC Freshman of the Year Terry Taylor — will also give Belmont a run for its money.
The Governors are undefeated in the OVC thus far and will face the Bruins on Jan. 26.
Belmont has not seen the NCAA Tournament in four years, their longest postseason drought since joining the OVC in 2012.