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Casey Alexander has Belmont rolling in the post-Rick Byrd era

Spending 20 years under Rick Byrd, Casey Alexander looks to become another Belmont legend

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Ohio Valley Tournament - Murray State v Belmont Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When a legendary coach leaves a program, there are usually some hiccups. Casey Alexander has come back to Belmont and his alma mater has not missed a beat.

Alexander was introduced as Belmont’s head coach in April 2019 and instead of having an introductory press conference, it was a welcome home. Alexander has spent nearly half of his life on the Belmont campus. After playing four years under Rick Byrd, he was an assistant under him for 16 more. Alexander left in 2011 to take the head coaching job at Stetson before building his resume with a successful run at Lipscomb.

After winning the OVC regular season and conference tournament titles last year, Alexander’s squad was picked third in the OVC preseason poll. Of course, coaches are going to say they do not read into it, but it stuck with Alexander.

“This team was picked third in the OVC,” he said. “For a Belmont team, expectations were probably the lowest they’ve been in a long time.”

Since the poll was released, they have won all but one game and have started OVC play at 10-0. A lot of the early success is a result of the players his former coach recruited, in Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy.

Muszynski was recently named to the Lou Henson Midseason Watch List, which is presented annually to the best mid-major player. It was well deserved. He is averaging 15.2 points per game and has hit double-figures in all but one game: a 114-62 victory over SIUE. That should prove how deep this team is.

During the Bruins’ tournament run in 2019, he scored 16 in a First Four win over Temple. Murphy scored nine.

“I think this team is the same,” Murphy said, comparing 2021 to the 2019 squad. “We go two-deep pretty much every position, sometimes three.”

Murphy is now the leader of his Belmont team and one of the best shooters in the country. He happens to do this on one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

Belmont’s offense is ranked in the top 10 in both two-point and effective field goal percentage. Murphy ranks ninth in the country in two-point, 19th in both effective field goal and true-shooting percentages, and 30th in offensive rating. He can also play defense, ranking 21st in the country in steal percentage.

Murphy started out the season making a statement, picking up a double-double in two games during the Paradise Jam in Washington, DC. Most recently, he has earned KenPom MVP in two of his last four games. And, like Muszynski, he was also named to the Lou Henson Midseason Watch List.

Just like on that 2019 team, a freshman has shown up as a key piece for the Bruins. This year, it is Jacobi Wood.

Wood opened his collegiate career with 21 points against Howard, and he has only continued to shine. The freshman is averaging 13.1 points per game and is shooting 49.3% from the field. Along with this, he ranks in the top 200 of four KenPom categories as a freshman.

Luke Smith is one of the lesser-known players on the team, as a D-III transfer, but cannot be ignored. Smith ranks 99th in the country in offensive rating and 38th in steal percentage, just like Murphy.

Surprisingly, his highest-scoring game was in the Bruins’ lone loss against Samford, when he scored 24. He scored 23 the game after, in their OVC opener against Tennessee State. Smith has continued his hot shooting, reaching double figures in five of his last six games.

Ben Sheppard is the player who is getting the least recognition, but is probably having the best offensive season in conference play. He has scored 20-plus three times so far in OVC games, and had 18 in Belmont’s win against SIUE.

Along with Murphy, he ranks in the top 45 of two-point percentage at 43rd. The only other teams to have two in the top 45 of that stat is LSU and Gonzaga.

The depth and ball movement have been other calling cards for this squad, ranking 82nd nationally in bench minutes, and 52nd in assists per field goals made.

“I think we’ve got pretty good balance and different ways to win,” Alexander said.

When you have five different players averaging double-digits in scoring, and another one at seven, some people can have off nights occasionally.

The Bruins have a huge test against preseason favorite, Austin Peay, on Thursday night. The game is nationally televised on ESPNU, giving the Bruins the opportunity to turn some more heads.