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Belmont versus Eastern Kentucky pitted the Ohio Valley’s present against its future

A.W. Hamilton’s youthful energy provides a spark for an OVC sleeping giant.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

RICHMOND, KY — The thunderstorm that accompanied Belmont’s arrival to Alumni Coliseum was a dazzling bit of irony that would not be lost on anyone who has taken to watching the Bruins this season — or Eastern Kentucky, for that matter.

Alumni Coliseum, home of the EKU Colonels.
Cameron Newton

In a matchup that showcased the talents of these two OVC programs that are far apart in the conference standings, one could find beaucoup similarities: Both are led by talented big men; both teams play some of the quickest basketball in the country; both teams have talented guard play to compliment their star forwards; both have some of the country’s youngest teams.

However, the chief contrast can be seen simply by looking towards the sidelines.

There is a 27-year age gap between Belmont Head Coach Rick Byrd and A.W. Hamilton, the latter of whom is making his way through his first season at Eastern Kentucky. It has been a season full of peaks and nadirs, especially as the Colonels have now found themselves in the thick of a four-game losing skid — their second such streak this year.

For Rick Byrd, this season has been the opposite. As someone who has been around basketball for the better part of his life, he has seen success that most coaches would envy. Yet, in his 33rd season with Belmont, his team could very well be poised for its deepest run to date.

After all, his Bruins now sit in first place in the conference standings, and possess victories over UCLA and Murray State as well as two wins over Lipscomb. And with Dylan Windler impressing with his scoring ability and freshman Nick Muszynski carving out an excellent role for himself in the post, Belmont has no shortage on talent.

That much was clearly on display Thursday night.

Despite hanging with Belmont for the first ten minutes of action, the size and shooting ability of the Bruins was too much for Eastern Kentucky to handle. Nick Mayo, the do-it-all star for the Colonels who was honored before the game’s start for scoring 2,000 career points, was rendered almost ineffective (it speaks to his level of ability that 22 points can be considered “ineffective” for him). There was no denying that Belmont earned its 83-65 victory.

One could only marvel at how Belmont’s post trio of Muszynski, Seth Adelsperger, and Caleb Hollander were able to shut down EKU’s inside game while also decimating the Colonels on the boards. This post presence is perhaps what has made the Bruins most deadly this year.

However, there were still shimmers of hope for Hamilton’s squad that spoke to both his coaching abilities and his roots. After spending years playing for and coaching under NC State’s Kevin Keatts, Hamilton has crafted a similarly fast-paced, pressure defense-oriented style — one can infer that Keatts certainly picked up the latter element from his former boss, Rick Pitino.

When one sits back and watches one of Hamilton’s teams on defense, they would be forgiven, should they begin to drift off and believe that they were watching one of the Pitino-led Louisville teams that smothered teams with their intense, pressure defense. Even against an elite team like Belmont, the Colonels proved why they’re one of the stingiest defensive units throughout college basketball.

Nevertheless, his team still fell short.

Eastern Kentucky was not in the best shape when Hamilton took over from Dan McHale, but he seems to be the perfect candidate to make the Colonels contend in the OVC once more. His youthful, high-energy style has reinvigorated this program with this season, creating a robust squad that is already a win away from matching last year’s total.

As Rick Byrd stood opposite A.W. Hamilton on the sidelines, one couldn’t help but be struck by the success one has achieved as well as the success the other is indefatigably working towards. Described by Hamilton as both a “class act” and “hall of fame basketball coach” (I don’t think he’ll receive much pushback there), Byrd’s teams symbolize exactly what every mid-major coach in America attempt to emulate.

EKU’s A.W. Hamilton speaks to the media following his team’s loss to Belmont.
Cameron Newton

After the defeat, Hamilton spoke about the “words of wisdom that [Byrd] has given me” in their two meetings this season, both before and after hard-fought Colonel losses. There is no doubt something to be gained from coaching against a veteran like Byrd, one of the winningest coaches in the history of the game.

It’s these experiences that help teams and coaches build, grow, and succeed.

While the present state has left a few more losses than EKU fans would hope for, the future might look something like the team from Nashville that took them down on Thursday night.