"It's easier to push yourself when playing 24 minutes per game instead of 35," said Coach Byrd of the Bruins' rotation and its impact. "There's not a best player at any spot. We can go two-deep at the point and at the five, and we're deeper at the wing and four."
Where have we seen this before? Last year's Murray State team, one that had ten players playing double figure minutes, used its depth and versatility to get to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling by two points to eventual runner-up Butler. Six players on that team averaged at least 9.7 points per game and the Racers won 30 games by an average margin of nearly 16 points per game. Belmont by comparison has five players scoring at least seven points per game with another two scoring six, and their overall margin of victory is just a shade less than 19 points per game. But the amazing margin of victory stat for the Bruins has been what they've done through eight league games, whipping the opposition by an average of 28.9 points per game.
"I don't know how you can't be surprised," remarked Coach Byrd when asked about the margins. "We've had a lot of games where we've had large margins [not just within A-Sun play]. It's a product of using our depth and not simply picking eight guys and playing them ahead of everyone else."
One of those players who have been on display for Belmont is redshirt junior forward Scott Saunders, who averages 11.3 points per game yet hasn't made a start all season. Saunders, who started his collegiate career at Rice, has raised his production across the board from last season and Coach Byrd credited his tenacity and hard work for the improvement. "One can claim that he's our MVP to this point in the season," noted Coach Byrd. "We run a 4 out/1 in offensive system and Scott was unfamiliar with that when he arrived. He's more comfortable and making better decisions." Saunders and starter Mick Hedgepeth form a very good tag team inside, and when you combine their averages in points and rebounds (22.2 ppg, 11.3 rpg) you get a "center" that would rank among the nation's best.
One can rattle off a number of statistics to show off Belmont's offensive ability, as their average of 83.4 points per game ranks seventh nationally. But this is also a very good defensive team that forces an average of 19.7 turnovers per game, with only four teams in America being better (Northwestern State, Duquesne, Navy and Nicholls State). To put Belmont's number in perspective with regards to their success: just one of the top 10 teams nationally in turnovers forced per game is ranked (Missouri), and the other eight in the Top 10 have an average of eight losses with just three being above .500 (Northwestern State, UNC Asheville and VMI). So clearly turnovers by themselves don't always equal wins, making it a good thing that the Bruins limit teams to shooting an Atlantic Sun-best 39.7% from the field.
"When we first arrived we tried to develop more of a solid defensive philosophy," said Coach Byrd when asked about his team's half-court defense. "We've maintained it but played faster, and we value deflections in our defense."
Good teams are also blessed with solid perimeter play, and the Bruins certainly have that with senior Jordan Campbell being one of the contributors. One of just two seniors on the roster, Campbell has put forth what Coach Byrd says is his "best year" as a senior in averaging 8.2 points per game, shooting 49.5% from the field and leading Belmont in both three-pointers made (39) and percentage (45.3%). Campbell played in Belmont's most recent NCAA appearance in 2008, playing well in a tough one-point loss to Duke in the first round. In point guard Drew Hanlen Belmont has a floor general that takes care of the basketball, having an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1 on the season. And Ian Clark, who led the way in a 90-55 win over Campbell with 20 points, was named Atlantic Sun Player of the Week and averages 12.1 points per game. Thus far just five of the eleven players have been mentioned and therein lays the problem in dealing with a team that has this kind of depth, something that gives Belmont a clear advantage when it comes to game preparation.
"The good thing about this team is that it's about how we play," said Coach Byrd. That should serve the Bruins well as they embark on a three-game road swing that begins with USC Upstate on Friday night. But after that game things get tougher for Belmont, with East Tennessee State on Sunday and rival Lipscomb Tuesday night. Belmont's already beaten Lipscomb once, an 88-52 pasting on January 13th, which will serve as added motivation for Adnan Hodzic and company. But while the margin of victory could drop some in the next week, Coach Byrd has a team more than capable of making it through the stretch run. And if they happen to show up in the Field of 68 look out. Those who saw the roster and thought that 2011-12 was their year to shine, Belmont's opponents can attest to the fact that the Bruins don't have much interest in waiting.
Three Other First Place Teams to Keep Tabs On
- Coastal Carolina (16-2, 7-0 Big South) Cliff Ellis' Chanticleers have won 14 straight games since losing to Georgetown in the first round of the Charleston Classic in mid-November, and they hope to get back to the Big South final where they lost to Radford last season. Five players average at least 8.8 points per game with junior guard Desmond Holloway averaging a team-best 18.8 ppg. Add in South Carolina transfer Mike Holmes inside and the Chants look like a team more than capable of getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993.
- Long Beach State (11-8, 6-0 Big West) Dan Monson's team took some beating in the non-conference portion of their schedule, and the absence of Larry Anderson (injury) for six games had something to do with that. They've now won six straight, most recently beating Pacific by a point and are up by two games in the loss column on preseason favorite UCSB (and already have a win over the Gauchos in Santa Barbara). And if you're a fan of offensive balance five players average between 11.1 (Eugene Phelps) and 14.7 (Casper Ware) points per game.
- Valparaiso (14-5, 6-1 Horizon) Homer Drew's club doesn't enjoy the separation in the standings that these other clubs do, but they've flown under the radar for much of the season thanks the presence of teams such as Butler and Cleveland State. But with Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson leading the way this is a good basketball team that's already 4-1 in conference road games. Next up for Valpo: three straight home games against Milwaukee, Green Bay and Butler. Don't hand the trophy over to Butler or Cleveland State just yet because the Crusaders may have something to say about that.