Last season was a great one for the Belmont Bruins. They lost only seven regular season games, and three of those were by a single point - including the season opener on the road against Duke. They continued on to take the Atlantic Sun conference tournament title and a 14-seed in the Big Dance before bowing out to Georgetown to end their season.
Now everything starts over, as Belmont moves from the Atlantic Sun Conference over to the Ohio Valley. It is a move that makes sense for the Bruins in terms of geography (five conference foes in-state if you round in Murray State, which is just outside the Tennessee border) and in terms of competition, now that they have the Racers to compete against for a conference title.
With that said, can they return to the Top 20 this season? It may be a struggle for them.
Sure, they bring back Kerron Johnson (5.8 HW/30) and Ian Clark, their two best guards and leading scorers from last season, but they also don't bring back Scott Saunders or Mick Hedgepeth, who combined for 19.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game for the Bruins. That kind of skilled size is not easily replaced.
Johnson is a quality scorer, but neither he nor Clark is an amazing defender, and Johnson's turnover rate actually increased to 2.4 per game last year - not deadly given his assist numbers, but not exactly that of an elite ballhandler either.
I appreciate Jay Walton's piece on the Bruins' upcoming season, but this bit is laughable:
Johnson led the Bruins in scoring last season at 13.8 ppg while also dishing out 177 assists and only committing 81 turnovers. The knock on Kerron early in his career was that he was out of control at times, but clearly has turned ball control into a major strength.
Again, his turnover rate has gone up in his time as a Bruin. But I digress, that's probably more of a nit-pick than anything else.
With regard to the rest of the team, half of the Bruins' roster is underclassmen, and the four sophomores that return combined to play 340 minutes last season.
I think we will find out this year how much of that was the team's lack of need for them beyond depth, and how much was lack of ability, but HOOPWAR doesn't look kindly on the squad. Johnson is the only returnee to finish above 1.7.
Speaking of that 1.7, it belongs to the guy that could be the key to this season, junior guard-forward JJ Mann. His numbers improved across the board last season and continuing that trajectory while receiving another increase in playing time this season will go a long way towards a strong campaign.
In terms of their new conference, Murray State was a better team last season and returns more talent; Morehead State finished 3rd but is 50-20 in conference the last 4 seasons, so they are no slouch either.
Both Murray State (Isaiah Canaan) and Tennessee Tech (Jud Dillard) also return a top player that, at least as far as HOOPWAR is concerned, is better than Johnson.
Bottom Line: Are the Bruins deep? Yes, but that depth is of unknown quality and limited experience. They have the non-conference schedule to get looks as long as they aren't dominated (VCU, Stanford and Kansas on the road, Boston University on a neutral court, and Middle Tennessee at home).
They're probably still second banana to the Racers in their new conference - one that is likely still a one-bid conference at the moment, and that may be just enough to keep them out of the Top 20 this season.
Ed Note: Adjusted the schedule in the Bottom Line to add Stanford and clarify what Boston.