The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That’s what Belmont basketball head coach Casey Alexander plans for as the start of the season is just days away.
“I’m a different guy. It may be a new era in certain ways, but I will stay true to what Belmont is and what this program has stood for and what’s made it great,” said Alexander.
Though there won’t be a sweater vest on the sideline for the first time in 33 years, Belmont fans shouldn’t expect too many shake-ups in the Alexander era.
The Bruins are entering the 2019-2020 season following some of their most historic seasons ever. Fans saw coach Rick Byrd’s 800th win, the program’s first ever at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament and even its first ever win in the tournament. And to top it off, senior Dylan Windler was the first Bruin in the Division I era to be drafted in the NBA Draft.
This season probably won’t contain the drama and history that last season did, but on a team with young superstars like Nick Muszynski, Grayson Murphy and Mitch Listau, the sky’s the limit.
Belmont saw Murphy, a redshirt freshman at the time, help lead the offense as starting point guard with poise and immediate success, taking over after four unbelievable years from superstar Austin Luke. Last season, Murphy averaged 9.6 points per game and 6.5 rebounds and, along with Muszynski, will most likely be on the starting lineup Wednesday.
Muszynski is coming off a freshman season where he averaged 14.7 points per game, 5.8 rebounds and shot 46 percent from the field. The team is built around young players like Muszynski, but the 2019 OVC Freshman of the Year says this team has more depth than last year’s.
“One thing about this year’s team that a lot of people don’t know is we’re a little bit deeper than maybe we have been,” said Muszynski. “If you look at box scores of some of our bigger games in the past, you see maybe eight guys playing significant minutes. We’re going to be playing 10 or 11 guys. We go crazy deep.”
A majority of the 2018-2019 Bruins success came from the electric offense of seniors Windler and Kevin McClain. This year’s team has only two seniors again in Seth Adelsperger and Michael Benkert, but this team’s success may depend on players like Listau and graduate transfer Tyler Scanlon.
Scanlon transferred from Boston University in the summer and will add more experience to the young team, as well as strengthen its offense and defense. In his final season at Boston University, he averaged 13.8 points per game and 5.5 rebounds and scored over 1,000 points during his time with the Terriers.
“He can make threes, he’s a superior passer and I think what he gives our team, as much as anything, is experience,” said Alexander. “He will be one way we will try to accomodate for losing the guys that we lost.”
Other players Bruin fans should be looking out for are junior Nick Hopkins and sophomores Adam Kunkel and Caleb Hollander. Hopkins is coming off a season where he shot 39 percent from the 3-point line and averaged 6.6 points per game and only 16 minutes per game. Hopkins will be a huge asset for the Bruins, especially on the outside perimeter game. Kunkel averaged barely 10 minutes per game last season but scored 5 points and blocked a shot in Belmont’s March Madness win against Temple, so Bruin fans can expect to see more of him shooting threes as well.
Hollander was one of the hottest players on the team at the beginning of the season and offered the Bruins a player who could shoot and score in the paint and who stood at 6 feet 8 inches. He scored consistently in the first couple of non-conference games and even scored the game winner in the Battle of the Boulevard at the Curb Event Center, but injury and illnesses hurt his progression in conference play and later during the NCAA Tournament. A healthy and mature Hollander can be an extremely dangerous asset for the Bruins.
The non-conference schedule isn’t as heavy as last season’s, but some of the opponents may be just as difficult. Some of the Bruins toughest games will against Samford University, Boston College, University of Alabama and Western Kentucky University.
Senior Seth Adelsperger isn’t worried who the Bruins are playing, however, and just wants to take it one game at a time.
“I’m excited for all of them, I try to take it one game at a time, so that means I’m most excited for Illinois State and after that I’m most excited Samford,” said Adelsperger. “You can only take them one at a time, so you just have to do your best every game.”
Belmont kick off its season on Wednesday at Illinois State University, who the Bruins beat relatively easy 100-89 last season. Though the Redbirds may not be Belmont’s toughest opponent this season, it will be fans’ first look at team under Alexander. The Bruins home opener will be much tougher as they take on Samford who they struggled against last season, winning 99-93 in overtime. The Bulldogs are currently ranked at 124 on the Ken Pomerey rankings and will be bringing back some key seniors.
One of the most anticipated games this season will most definitely be the two Battle of the Boulevard games where Alexander will face his old team — a team that he helped build and coach.
“Having to compete against a program of guys where literally everybody but one in that program I had a lot to do with them going there,” said Alexander. “I love those guys and they gave me their all and so that’ll be a different dynamic that I’m looking forward to but I think once the game starts it’ll be like every other game.”
In 2019, he carried Lipscomb University to the National Invitational Tournament Final where they lost to the University of Texas 81-66. Lipscomb did lose a ton of key seniors, including current Washington Wizard Garrison Mathews as well as junior Kenny Cooper who transferred to Western Kentucky just five days after Alexander was hired by Belmont.
Notable non-conference games
At Middle Tennessee State University on Nov. 30. MTSU has been struggling the past year, missing the NCAA Tournament the past two years and losing to Belmont 92-73. The Blue Raiders lost in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament.
The University of Alabama at Huntsville (neutral site) on Dec. 21. Alabama will be going into the season with new coach Nate Oats from the University of Buffalo which he led to three straight NCAA appearances. Alabama is the highest ranked team on KenPom Belmont will face this year at No. 70.
At Western Kentucky on Dec. 28. WKU may be the toughest team the Bruins will face all season with returning players like sophomore Charles Bassey who averaged 14.6 points per game and 10 rebounds. Bassey didn’t live up to the NBA hype he received in the 2018-2019 season and decided to stay with the Hilltoppers — a team he can lead to the NCAA Tournament.
This article written by Steven Boero. Video produced by Colby Crosby.