For the first time since 1987, a team from the Ohio Valley Conference made the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid. Here’s everything you need to know about the Belmont Bruins, the team to notch this historic milestone.
How’d they get here?
Heading into the season, the Bruins decided to heed the Selection Committee’s advice and craft a schedule that was as it possibly could be. That meant playing a home-and-home with Lipscomb, traveling for road games against UCLA and Purdue, and inviting Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, and Illinois State to Nashville for home matchups.
Even though some of these teams didn’t end up being as good as they were when initially scheduled, Belmont made the most of its opportunities, only losing at Purdue and at Green Bay in the non-conference slate.
When OVC play rolled around, the Bruins dropped two crushing games to Jacksonville State, a team that has been a thorn in their side ever since Ray Harper took over as head coach of the Gamecocks. However, they still managed to pick up a massive road win against Murray State en route to earning a share of the OVC title with the Racers.
In the OVC Tournament, Belmont—without starting center Nick Muszynski—fell to Murray State in the title game, leaving the Bruins wondering if their résumé was good enough to earn an at-large bid.
How do they play?
Rick Byrd is known for coaching some of the most fun, efficient offenses in college basketball, and this season, he can pair that style with the most talented roster that he has had in his three-plus decades at Belmont.
The Bruins play at a very fast pace, utilizing a combination of quick shots, fast breaks, and backdoor cuts to capitalize on any opportunity to score. Of course, when they get opportunities, they often convert. That’s part of the reason why they currently lead the nation in assists per game with 19.9, trail only Gonzaga in scoring offense, and boast the 20th most efficient offense on KenPom.
Who’s their coach?
Do they have any stars?
With all the focus in the OVC being on Murray State’s Ja Morant, it was very easy for the Bruins’ Dylan Windler to fly under the radar. However, he is an NBA level player in his own right, and his versatility and size allows him to be a threat from literally any spot on the court. He can shoot. He can rebound. He can be a slasher. The possibilities are endless, and Byrd’s offense showcases his abilities well.
In addition to Windler, redshirt freshman Nick Muszynski has given Belmont fans tremendous hope for this team. It was hard to foresee him playing at the level he has all season long, and his post presence has turned Belmont’s offense into one that is no longer just lethal from the perimeter. Yet, his defensive prowess has made entering the lane against Belmont a tough task.
How far can they go?
The answer to this question really depends on the health of Muszynski. After sustaining an injury in the OVC Tournament semifinals against Austin Peay, Muszynski missed the title game, resulting in a 12-point Belmont loss. The Bruins have some depth at the position with Seth Adelsperger and Derek Sabin, but it’s difficult to replace Muszynski.
If, as Rick Byrd said, Muszynski is healthy and ready to play, there’s a good chance that this team can win a game or two, if not put together a run to the Sweet 16. They seem to have everything that you could possibly ask for: a good set of guards, a rock-solid center, and an NBA-caliber player to bring it all together.
Oh, and country music legend Vince Gill is a big Belmont fan as well.