Monday, October 10, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 20 Belmont Bruins

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 30-5, 19-1 (1st Atlantic Sun), lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Wisconsin

Head Coach: Rick Byrd

Key Losses: John House, Jordan Campbell

Newcomers: Seth Cavera, Spencer Turner, Chad Lang, Holden Mobley, Reece Chamberlain

Projected Lineup:

- G: Drew Hanlen, Sr.
- G: Ian Clark, Jr.
- F: JJ Mann, So.
- F: Trevor Noack, Sr.
- C: Mick Hedgepeth, Sr.
- Bench: Scott Saunders, Sr.; Kerron Johnson, Jr.; Brandon Baker, Jr.; Blake Jenkins, So.

Outlook: The fact that Belmont lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament too Wisconsin -- pretty handily as well, losing by 14 points -- put a bit of a damper on the 2010-2011 season, but it certainly didn't diminish what the Bruins were able to accomplish last year. Using a roster that had 11 players average between 10.3 and 24.6 mpg, nine of whom played all 35 games and averaged between 5.2 and 12.2 ppg, Belmont put together a 30 win season. Their four losses before Wisconsin? They lost at Tennessee by nine, at Vanderbilt by nine, another game at Tennessee by one, and the Battle of the Boulevard -- one of the most underrated rivalries in the country -- at cross-town rival Lipscomb.

Belmont rolled through the Atlantic Sun this season, going 19-1 and winning the league by three games while posting an average scoring margin of 17.5 ppg in what was one of the most dominating seasons in recent memory. The scariest part? This season was supposed to be Belmont's peak. They return four starters and nine of the 11 rotational players, blending talented youngsters with experienced leaders.

The leading scorer for this Belmont team is Ian Clark, a 6'3" shooting guard with a deadly stroke that also led the team in minutes played last season. Clark struggled against Wisconsin in the tournament, however, as he shot just 1-8 from the floor. At the point guard spot, the Bruins have a formidable duo that compliment each other perfectly. Drew Hanlan is the senior and the starter. He's a possession point guard, the kind of player that doesn't turn the ball over, although he has mastered the art of getting into the lane and finding one of Belmont's litany of jumpshooters. Kerron Johnson is the change-of-pace point guard. A terrific defender -- he led the team with 2.0 spg despite playing just 18.3 mpg -- Johnson's strength is his quickness and ability to get to the rim.

The other strength for Belmont is going to be the center position, where they have another formidable duo. Mick Hedgepeth is the starter while Scott Saunders comes off the bench. Hedgepeth is the more skilled of the two, with range out to the three point line and a solid array of post moves. Saunders, on the other hand, is a high-energy guy that produces instantly. He had the highest usage rate of anyone on the roster last season, he drew fouls at a terrific rate, and he really got to the glass. Combined, the two average 20.7 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 1.7 bpg.

The rest of Belmont's rotation will be filled out by Trevor Noack, JJ Mann, Blake Jenkins, and Brandon Baker. Noack, a junior, started the last 23 games a season ago, playing the role of the blue-collar glue-guy. I expect Mann, a sophomore, to slide into the starting spot at the three. Mann was a well-regarded recruit but he had some issues finding a consistent jump shot. Jenkins and Baker both were energy guys last season, but it wouldn't be surprising to see their roles expanded this season. Belmont has five freshmen on the roster this year, but with the depth and the experience returning, they won't be playing huge roles. Don't be surprised to see Chad Lang, the son of former NBA center Andrew, may see some minutes inside while Spencer Turner could end up providing some depth in the back court.

Its important to note that what made Belmont successful last season wasn't the skills of the individual players but how well those players mesh in Byrd's system. Defensively, Belmont likes to press. They are terrific at forcing turnovers -- second in the country in turnover percentage at 27.5% -- and love to push the ball in transition. The fact that they go 10 or 11 deep allows them to consistently and continually put defensive pressure, and to do so with fresh legs for 40 minutes. Offensively, Belmont does two things -- they push the pace in transition and they thrive on the three-ball. With the exception of Hedgepeth and Saunders, every player on the Bruin roster is three-point shooter. When they are going down, Belmont is going to be a very tough team to beat.