#95 Belmont Men's Basketball 2017-2018 Preview

Belmont Bruins
2017-2018 Overall Rank: #95
Conference Rank: #1 Ohio Valley Belmont Logo
The Belmont Bruins dominated the Ohio Valley Conference regular season, but were ultimately upset in the conference tournament. The Bruins won the regular season championship by an amazing five games and finished the season with a 15-1 conference record and a 23-7 overall record. Belmont was rewarded for their dominance with a trip to the NIT where they upset Georgia in the first round before falling to Georgia Tech in round two. This marked another successful season for Coach Rick Byrd who has created and sustained a winning culture at Belmont. The Bruins have made the NCAA tournament or NIT 10 times in the last 12 years, which is unbelievably impressive for a mid-major school. Belmont’s level of consistency is even more remarkable when you consider that they moved to a stronger conference without missing a beat. Since moving from the Atlantic Sun to the OVC, Belmont has been a fixture at the top of the standings and this season should be no different. Per usual, Belmont is led by a strong group of returning players who waited their turn as underclassmen only to make a major impact as juniors and seniors. The Bruins’ experience and winning culture will allow them to defend their regular season crown.
2016-17 Record:  23-7 overall, 15-1 in conference
2016-17 Postseason: NIT
Coach: Rick Byrd
Coach Record:  662-333 at Belmont, 754-388 overall
Who’s Out:
The biggest loss for the Bruins is the graduation of Evan Bradds, the two time OVC player of the year. Bradds is a 6-7 forward who was an elite interior scorer with excellent footwork and touch. Belmont would look to give Bradds post touches early in the game since he has an array of post moves and was able to kick the ball out to the perimeter to find open three point shooters. Bradds’ contributions will be sorely missed because the Bruins do not have another proficient interior scorer to fill his role. He had an extremely productive four-year career and averaged 20 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game as a senior, but was best known for his efficiency. Bradds shot over 62% from the field throughout his whole college career and he actually led the country in shooting percentage for two seasons. This loss cannot be overstated.
Guard Taylor Barnette and forward Nick Smith have also graduated from Belmont. Barnette started his career at Virginia before transferring to Belmont, making him one of the few transfers to play for Coach Byrd. The 6-3 senior was second on the team in scoring at 11.3 points per game, but his shooting percentages plummeted in his final season. Barnette shot 34.3% from the field and 28.5% from three as a senior which is significantly lower than the 41.5% and 36.6% that he shot as a junior. Nick Smith was also a member of the rotation and provided three-point shooting to the frontcourt. The 6-8 forward scored 8.9 points per game and made 69 threes at an impressive 42.3% clip. Both players made major contributions during their Belmont careers, but the Bruins should have players ready to step in and replace their production.
Who’s In:
DeAndre Bradshaw is the highest profile recruit in Belmont’s incoming class. Bradshaw has great size for his position, at 6-7, and possesses some point-forward skills meaning he is adept at handling the ball and finding open teammates which are skills that are typically found in guards, even though he plays on the wing. Bradshaw’s ability to create for others is not his only skill, he also has a solid shooting stroke and his size allows him to get his shot off over smaller defenders. However, Bradshaw’s 180-pound frame is a major weakness and if he is overmatched physically it could limit his playing time as a freshman. Nick Hopkins, a 5-11 scoring guard, will be eligible for the Bruins after redshirting last season. Hopkins has a chance to earn immediate playing time because Belmont will need to replace their two leading scorers and he is certainly capable of putting points on the board. Hopkins could play alongside point guard Austin Luke, who has great size for a PG at 6-3. Luke’s size allows Hopkins to guard opposing PGs when both are on the court. Both Bradshaw and Hopkins should contribute off the bench and will be valuable reserves.
Belmont’s other three new players seem to be in line for minor roles as freshmen and will have to wait their turn behind more experienced upperclassmen. Caleb Hollander is a 6-7 stretch four whose shooting could earn him a small reserve role. Hollander is a key piece for the future, but does not have a clear path for playing time this season. Grayson Murphy is a 6-1 guard who will provide depth in the backcourt and Nick Muszynski is a 6-10 center who will provide depth in the frontcourt.
Who to Watch:
Amanze Egekeze is the team’s leading returning scorer at 11.3 points per game. The 6-8 senior plays both the power forward and center positions, but spends most of his time behind the three-point line on offense. Egekeze shot 38.4% from long range and those shots accounted for more than half of his total field goal attempts. Junior Dylan Windler started at small forward and added even more three-point shooting to a skilled starting lineup. Last season, as a sophomore, Windler enjoyed a breakout year where he more than doubled his scoring and improved his three-point shooting significantly. Windler averaged 4.3 points and shot 23.9% from three as a freshman and those numbers jumped to 9.2 and 39.8%. At 6-7, Windler has great size for a wing and provides Belmont with additional lineup flexibility. The lanky lefty could be in line for another jump in production with Bradds and Barnette out of the picture.
Senior Austin Luke is a 6-3 point guard with tremendous court vision. Luke was second in the country in assists at 7.1 per game, only behind Lonzo Ball of UCLA, and he is responsible for Belmont’s great ball movement on offense. Luke is surrounded by excellent three point shooters, but their percentages are so high partly because Luke can get them the ball where they are comfortable. Joining Luke in the backcourt is junior Kevin McLain. McLain saw a consistent role off the bench for the last two seasons and he will now have a chance to compete for a starting role. McLain averaged 4.6 points per game, but shot an inefficient 36.4% from the field. Michael Benkert and Burton Sampson round out the returning perimeter players. Benkert is a 6-4 sophomore who barely played as a freshman, while Sampson is a senior walk-on whose minutes have steadily increased throughout his Belmont career. Expect both players to compete for minutes on the wing, but they may be behind newcomers Hopkins and Bradshaw in the rotation.
Mack Mercer is a 6-9 forward who should play a significant role after redshirting last season. Mercer averaged 7.5 points in just 11 minutes per game in 2015-16 and is an excellent shooter. He shot 39.1% from three and 82.6% from the free throw line which is notable for a player his size. Playing Mercer at center will make the Bruins extremely difficult to guard since all five starters will be three point threats and Mercer will pull opposing big men away from the basket and open driving lanes for the guards. Senior Tyler Hadden and sophomore Seth Adelsperger played sparingly last season, but could see bigger roles since Bradds and Smith have graduated. Both players played less than four minutes per game and at the very least they will provide frontcourt depth. This talented and experienced frontcourt will keep the Bruins near the top of the conference.
Final Projection:
Belmont has enjoyed a sustained level of success even though they seem to lose key pieces to graduation every season. The Bruins always “stay old” since players rarely transfer out of the program even though they have to wait their turn as underclassmen. This is quite unusual in today’s college basketball landscape and is the main reason for Belmont’s success. The three upperclassmen who look ready to lead the Bruins are Austin Luke, Amanze Egekeze, and Dylan Windler. All three players have logged many minutes in their Belmont careers and should benefit from that experience. The one question that lingers with Belmont is: will they be too reliant on outside shooting? Belmont always shoots a lot of threes, but the past few years they had Evan Bradds to dump the ball in to and get a basket inside. With Bradds gone there is no clear interior scoring threat which could mean the Bruins will shoot even more three pointers. If anyone can solve this problem it is Coach Byrd who should have Belmont finishing at the top of the conference once again.
Projected Postseason Tournament: NCAA
Projected Starting Five:
Austin Luke, Guard, Senior, 8.0 points per game
Kevin McLain, Guard, Junior, 4.6 points per game
Dylan Windler, Forward, Junior, 9.2 points per game
Amanze Egekeze, Forward, Senior, 11.3 points per game
Mack Mercer, Forward, Junior, DNP Last Season
By the Numbers:
Scoring Offense: 76.7 (97th in nation, 5th in conference)
Scoring Defense: 69.3 (97, 3)
Field-Goal Percentage: 46.9 (54, 2)
Field-Goal Defense: 42.7 (113, 3)
Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 10.2 (7, 1)
Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 34.2 (217, 8)
Free-Throw Percentage: 76.8 (17, 1)
Rebound Margin: 2.9 (92, 5)
Assists Per Game: 16.0 (30, 2)
Turnovers Per Game: 12.7 (136, 4)