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The Other Top 25: No. 14 Belmont Bruins

The Bruins have two stars and a deep supporting cast. 

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four- Belmont Bruins vs Temple Owls
Junior Nick Muszynski is the leader of this year’s Belmont team.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2019-20 Record: 26-7, 15-3 Ohio Valley (T1st)

Key Returning Players: Nick Muszynski (C, Jr.), Grayson Murphy (G, Jr.), Caleb Hollander (F, Jr.), Tate Pierson (G, Jr.), Ben Sheppard (G, So.), Mitch Listau (G, So.)

Key Losses: Adam Kunkel, Tyler Scanlon, Nick Hopkins

Key Newcomers: JaCobi Wood (G, Fr.), Luke Smith (G, Jr/U of the South), Even Brauns (C, Fr.)

Belmont is the Ohio Valley standard bearer. Since joining the OVC in 2012-13 the Bruins have won or shared seven of the last eight regular-season titles. Casey Alexander’s team is determined to maintain their standard of excellence.

With two All-Conference returners in center Nick “Moose” Muszynski and guard Grayson Murphy, Belmont has the perfect inside-out combination to defend its title. The two juniors are elite OVC players and leaving a historical mark in Nashville.

Moose is one block (122) from tying Belmont’s Division I career blocks record and has scored 975 points during his first two Belmont seasons. Murphy led the OVC in five statistical categories, was second nationally in assist-turnover ratio and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year last season.

They are two of the league’s 13 All-Conference returners.

Belmont is known for its offensive efficiency and 3-point shooting. Alexander’s bombing Bruins led the OVC in scoring (79.6 ppg), three-pointers (9.7 per game) and assists (18.3 per game) in 2019-20.

Belmont will miss last year’s leading scorer, Adam Kunkel as the junior transferred over to Xavier. For the Bruins to win their eighth title, they’ll need a deep cast of players to fill major roles.

3 Things To Watch:

Muszynski’s Leadership and Consistency

For all of Muszynski’s accolades and accomplishments, Alexander wants more out of his star center. While Moose is a jovial, fun-loving guy his coach wants him to become more consistent and a better on-floor leader. He scored 25 points in Belmont’s thrilling OVC tournament championship game, but recorded only eight points during their semifinal win.

Alexander wants his 6-foot-11 center to remember that in most situations, he is the best player on the floor.

Muszynski realizes his senior-less team needs him to step into a leadership role.

“I’m not a natural leader in the sense of being an example setter,” said Muszynski. “I am more of an inclusive person and including others kind of guy. Coach has challenged me to be lead through my examples with a consistent business-like approach.”

During his final three games leading to the OVC Tournament, the redshirt junior who averaged 15.3 points per game, was shut out at Eastern Kentucky, scored 23 against Tennessee Tech and added 19 at Tennessee State but grabbed only two rebounds.

Murphy To Dominate Games

The OVC’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year led the Bruins with 7.4 rebounds per game and averaged 9.8 points.

Plus, he runs the Belmont offense.

While his expertise is setting up others (6.2 assists per game), he converted 34% of his long-distance attempts and the Bruins will need the Franklin, Tennessee, native to look for his own shot more often. With Kunkel (16.5 ppg and 83 triples) gone some of that offense will have to come from Murphy.

He reached double figures 18 times last year, including eight of the team’s last nine games and recorded three double-doubles.

An Emerging Star From the Supporting Cast

Belmont will be deep and versatile. Alexander’s returning players know the offense and have shown promise. Caleb Hollander recorded three 20-point performances during his freshman season, but injuries have hampered his production. The 6-foot-8 forward is expected to replace Tyler Scanlon at the four.

Guards Tate Pierson and Mitch Listau each averaged around three points per contest and converted just over 36% of their three-point attempts. Alexander says there won’t be just one player that replaces Kunkel, but several players will have to step up.

Newcomers Luke Smith and JaCobi Wood could be those players. Smith scored over 1,000 points during his two Division III seasons. Wood was the Tennessee AAA Mr. Basketball while averaging 29 points per game for Cleveland (Tennessee) High School. Comparing the two, Smith is a spread-the-floor shooter and Wood is a player that can create his own offense.

Loaded OVC

Thirteen of last season’s top 15 players return to the OVC. The 2019-20 Player of the Year Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor is one of three players that recently pulled their names out of the NBA draft. Taylor and his sophomore teammate and 2019-20 Freshman of the Year Jordyn Adams, were two of those players and the league coaches tabbed the Governors as co-favorites with Murray State to win the regular season title.

Murray State tied the Bruins for the regular-season championship and lost the tournament title game to Belmont by one point. All-conference players Tevin Brown and K.J. Williams return for Matt McMahon’s team.

Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State are also on the rise.

X-Factor

Ben Sheppard

One year ago, I asked Alexander to name one player that would exceed expectations and make a huge contribution. He told me it would be Kunkel. When I asked him that question this week, he said, without hesitation, Ben Sheppard.

The 6-foot-6 sophomore averaged just 2.9 points per game, but Alexander calls him “a proven winner.” He was a state champion in high school and a three-time all-state performer in Georgia. While he doesn’t expect Sheppard to put up Kunkel-like numbers, Alexander called Sheppard one of the team’s best defenders and expects him to contribute significantly on the offensive end.

Belmont has two stars, but Muszynski says every one of the members of the supporting cast is talented and prepared to contribute. If they do, the Bruins will be right back where we expect to see them, on the top of the OVC standings.