NORMAL — Casey Alexander’s first game coaching Belmont didn’t go according to the script.
Replacing legends isn’t easy. Byrd is gone and so is NBA first-round pick Dylan Windler, who is now with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Belmont is good and will be good, but Alexander will have to develop depth. Only six players played double-digit minutes in Belmont’s 79-72 loss at Illinois State.
For more than a half, the Bruins followed the script perfectly.
Crisp passes, hitting threes, throwing it into sophomore center Nick Muszynski for easy layups led to a comfortable, if not sizable, 31-23 halftime lead. With 10:12 left they still led 61-54. Byrd won 805 games with that recipe. Alexander won 137 games in eight years at Lipscomb with the same playbook, style and approach. Outstanding returning sophomores Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy are joined this year by grad-transfer Tyler Scanlon (Boston U). Alexander is also optimistic about the possible contributions of sophomore Adam Kunkel.
Just when it looked like the Bruins would run away with the road win, the team went cold and the Redbirds caught fire. Illinois State outscored Belmont 25-11 over the final ten minutes.
Alexander was very unhappy with the loss, but not with his team’s efforts.
“We played well and ran the plays we wanted to play,” Alexander said. “I’ll take those shots and my team anytime. Our [three-point] shots just weren’t falling in the second half.”
Belmont made just seven of 25 three-point efforts, including a dismal 2-10 in the second stanza. The looks were good, the shots were not. Alexander says a lot of the credit goes to the zone employed by Illinois State.
“They had to go to a zone to slow down Muszynski,” Alexander said. “So give them credit for playing it well and tipping and deflecting a lot of passes. But I don’t think that strategy will work against us too often. We’re just too good of a shooting team.”
The 6’11” Muszynski was unstoppable. He scored 20 points on a wide variety of post moves that left the Redbirds unable to defend him.
“That’s our offense,” Alexander added. “He’s so talented and gifted and he knows when to pass it out for open looks. They had to collapse down on him, we just didn’t make them pay.”
Belmont scored 40 points in the paint and hurt ISU on dribble penetration.
Murphy was second in the Ohio Valley Conference in assists last season, but looked like he deferred to Scanlon. He was 14th nationally in assists last year, but handed out just one during this season-opening loss. Scanlon struggled with his shot (2-6) but did deliver six dimes. Ironically the two guards led the Bruins in rebounding: The 6’2” Murphy grabbed nine and Scanlon added seven.
There were times when Belmont seemed one-half step slower than the Redbirds.
“Give them credit,” Alexander said. “It was a weird game where it seemed like there were a lot of deflections, loose balls and odd rebounds where they just seemed to get more of them than we did. We worked hard, they just ended up with more than their share of those extra possessions.”
The Bruins have five days until their next game against Samford on Nov. 11, and Alexander says his message to his team hasn’t changed after the opening loss.
“We’ll just go back and look at everything,” he said. “We will try to learn what we can learn, simplify some things and just keep doing what we do. I’m not disappointed with our team or the way we played. We just missed some shots at some critical times and didn’t the defensive stops we needed.”
Junior Nick Hopkins scored 12 of the team’s 13 bench points. The rest of reserves accumulated one point and three rebounds. Conversely Illinois State had nine players contribute at least 12 minutes and they totaled 25 points.
Illinois State coach Dan Muller had nothing but praise for the Bruins and their new coach.
“Belmont is such a good program and they are so well coached,” Muller said. “Credit them, and Casey and the job they do. They’re good and Casey is such a good coach. They’re going to win a lot of games. That program is used to winning and they expect to win, but they have some guys in some new positions, so like us they have to learn to do it also.”
Learning to do it. That’s what lies before the Belmont Bruins.