With an unpredictable season ahead of it, the Belmont men’s basketball team is focused on one common goal: to play.
For months, COVID-19 placed a huge question mark on the likelihood of a season — but now that the schedule is set, redshirt junior Nick Muszynski is ready to get back on the floor with his team.
“It’s been a crazy nine months since our season abruptly ended,” said Muszynski.” We’re just ready to get back out there to compete and show what we’re made of.”
The Bruins are projected to place third in the Ohio Valley Conference this season. It’s an unfamiliar ranking for the team, as Belmont has historically been projected either first or second in the conference.
However, Coach Casey Alexander isn’t too worried about what the preseason polls have to say.
“Certainly this is proof that what you’ve done in the past doesn’t prove where you are currently,” said Alexander. “We aren’t worried about that, but we do get the chance to go out and see if we’re better than that.”
A potential reason for the ranking is that the team lost three key players this offseason. Tyler Scanlon and Michael Benkert both graduated, and Adam Kunkel transferred to Xavier University in July.
The absence of Tyler Scanlon leaves the power forward position open.
Coach Alexander hinted the Bruins might fill this role with redshirt junior Caleb Hollander. As a freshman, Hollander stepped up to the plate quickly, making a name for himself as a big man with a lethal shot.
And although fans didn’t catch much of a glimpse of him last season due to injuries, Alexander is confident in his ability to come back strong.
“We know he can get the job done. He’s playing with great confidence and he’s healthy, so our expectations there are pretty high. We anticipate him being a really important piece for us,” said Alexander.
Another player to watch going into this season is sophomore Ben Sheppard. In the appearances he made last season, Sheppard provided unbelievable energy and defense giving the Bruins bench even greater depth.
Sheppard has the potential to fill in Benkert’s role as a small forward, a position that carries high energy and contributes at both ends of the floor.
“Ben is a really talented player,” said Alexander. “He did a lot of good things for us last season, but we didn’t need him to play significant minutes. This season he’ll be elevated to a very significant role for us.”
And when it comes to filling Adam Kunkel’s shoes, Alexander expects it to be “done by committee.” Despite Kunkel’s prominent reputation, there are many players on the roster qualified to take the position, including junior transfer Luke Smith.
Smith transitioned to Belmont from Sewanee, a Division III school where he built a fantastic resume. His three-point shooting percentage is very similar to Kunkel’s, and while there, he took his team to its first national championship appearance in over 20 years.
“He’ll be a guy that people will recognize really quickly when we start playing games,” said Alexander. “I anticipate he’ll play a lot of minutes and make a really nice contribution, especially on the offensive end.”
And despite the changes the team will see going into this season, an impressive duo still remains at the top in Muszynski and redshirt junior Grayson Murphy. They both have demonstrated the skills necessary to consistently score and defend the basket for the Bruins.
Each of these players, along with the entire team, will be tested in non-conference matchups this season. It will serve as a time for Alexander to pinpoint weaknesses and create a fluid team dynamic ahead of conference play.
Though the season up to this point has been uncertain, Alexander and the team are still eager to get on the floor — and see positive results.
“The beauty of coaching from year to year is just seeing how each player develops, and how each team develops its own identity,” said Alexander.
“I expect nothing but positive results from this team.”
Notable non-conference games
* Belmont vs. Northeastern University on Nov. 28 in the Paradise Jam. The Huskies finished 23-11 for the 2019-2020 season placing second in their conference. They went on to beat three teams in their conference tournament, becoming conference champions and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
* Samford University at Belmont on Dec. 5. In Belmont’s blowout win against Samford last season, a huge factor of its win was the 16 threes put up by the team. However, nine of them were made by Kunkel and Scanlon, two players Belmont no longer has at its disposal. It will be interesting to see how Alexander makes up for that, with so many open positions in question.
* Belmont at Lipscomb University on Dec. 12. The annual matchups against Lipscomb have always been nail-biting games to experience, with each matchup being decided in less than 10 points. This year, Lipscomb was ranked first by a large margin in its conference’s coach’s poll, making it a scary opponent when the time comes.
This article written by Julieann Challacombe.