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Bellarmine proving it is ready for the big stage

With a massive season finale looming Saturday, coach Scotty Davenport tells us how they’ve been building for more than just one great year

Bellarmine v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Scotty Davenport knows where his basketball program’s strength lies. You don’t need to talk to him long to understand that.

“These 18-22 year olds, they’re the answer. I’m not the answer. They are the answer…we need them right now. I know we’ve got all these questions in society – we’re gonna be okay. And the reason: you walk in this locker room, in that gym, on the floor with these players in the weight room, you’ll gain great confidence.”

Heck, maybe not just the strength of his program, but the strength of the whole darn world.

The head coach of Bellarmine University Men’s Basketball in Louisville, Kentucky, Davenport has seen quite a few players come and go over his 16 seasons in charge. He spent his first 15 building Knights basketball into a powerhouse at the Division II level, qualifying for the tournament the last 12 seasons, including four Final Fours and a championship in 2011.

“[During Saturday’s game], we’re gonna celebrate the 2011 National Champions. We’re doing that with one still playing in Germany, one in Australia, one in Israel, we’re bringing them in the fold. That’s what having a true program’s about. I know as long as I’m here, this will always be one group passing the torch to the next. It makes it special.”

They just might be in attendance to pass the torch to a Bellarmine team in search of another huge milestone. With a win on Saturday, Bellarmine would cap off their astonishing first Division I season as regular season champions of the ASUN conference in a nationally televised game on ESPNU (noon Eastern tip.) Their opponent: the Liberty Flames, class of the ASUN for the past two seasons and sporting an identical 10-2 conference record. They do battle in the historic Freedom Hall, for decades the premier arena of a college basketball-crazed city, and where Davenport began his coaching career in the mid-80’s as an assistant for the legendary Denny Crum.

Due to a Friday scheduling conflict, what was originally a back-to-back has been reduced to the single Saturday game, meaning the winner takes the crown. Outright.

But to tell the story of how the Knights ended up here, center-stage in the bright noontime ASUN, you need to start in the darkness.

“Last year – pre-pandemic – was the most difficult year I’ve ever had coaching,” Davenport said.

Really? Not this year? Not with COVID? The cancellations, the protocols, the fear and anxiety? Not during his squad’s maiden voyage in a competitive ASUN, picked second to last in the preseason, opening away at Cameron Indoor?

“Again, pre-pandemic,” he emphasizes, as if anticipating the next question.

“We had a meeting when the players returned to campus in the summer of ’19. And I told them – I screamed as loud as I could scream – they would never hear one syllable out of my mouth, or anyone connected with our staff, about Division I. The reason? Alex Cook, Ben Weyer, Parker Chitty, Chris Palombizio – we had four seniors on that team. If that was your son, and everywhere you go in Louisville you mention ‘My son plays at Bellarmine,’ and they immediately say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going Division I!’ And you’d say, ‘Well no, not my son, he’s a senior.’ So we did not utter a syllable that entire season. But, behind the scenes we were having to recruit, schedule, adjust academically, adjust everything to the coming transition, so we were doing two in one.”

It wasn’t their best season, but they battled to a 20-8 mark and earned a five (of eight) seed in the D-II tournament. You probably know what happens next.

“You go through that kind of a season. And on the 12th of March, we’re on spring break. So we had film at 11:30, practice at noon, a great spirited practice…We were having a great team meal, and in between practice and the meal, the tournament was ended.” His seemingly endless supply of positive energy disappeared from his face as he talked about it.

“And those four players – and we thrive here…you’ve got to fight to never take the jersey off for the last time [with the guys you’re playing with.] They never got to take it off…and that’s how that year ended. It was one of the most emotional nights I’ve had in coaching. But at the same time, we have the excitement of looking ahead. It’s tough.”

Like many teams, they had to find creative ways to stay together while quarantining. They leaned on zoom to continue to connect both with and without coaches for about three months before coming back in July, then figuring out the best way to conduct in-person sessions in the time of COVID, all with a daunting schedule in front of them.

The season began as many outsiders may have expected. They competed hard against Duke in the first half but saw them pull away. Eventually they found themselves 1-5 in Division I games, including two close losses to Lipscomb at home, where they just couldn’t put the game away at the end.

In their next game, at Florida Gulf Coast, they put it away early. “To feel their emotion. How bad they wanted it,” Davenport said after the game. “They just did something that will never be taken away from them. They’ll never forget tonight.”

They haven’t lost since. And despite impressive offensive numbers, you won’t really find the answers in the box scores, according to coach.

“If you evaluate a player, you can do all the analytics, KenPom…you can rank anybody…But what you’ll never find in all those analytics is what make real extraordinary people extraordinary. That’s those who make others better.”

He sees that in his current bunch. He has senior leadership in CJ Fleming and Ethan Claycomb, gets great defensive effort out of Dylan Penn at the point. He talked about Pedro Bradshaw, the team leader in points (15.4) and rebounds (7.3), who a day after posting back-to-back double-doubles against Jacksonville and earning ASUN player of the week honors, was the first one in the gym on a mandatory day off.

Perhaps their most coveted award is the “Wolf of the Week”, where the group collectively selects the week’s best teammate, where they not only have to wear an “ugly” wolf shirt, but give out a wolf call at the start of practice. “Some of them would hurt your ears, trust me.”

One statistic that isn’t lost on Coach Davenport: shooting percentage. Perennially in the top ten in shooting percentage in Division II, the Knights proved their model translates to the game’s highest tier, shooting a staggering 51.1% from the field, good for fourth in the country. In an age where three-pointers are the centerpiece of most offenses, Bellarmine is able to secure wins while ranking last in their conference in threes attempted.

The secret? Coach Davenport grinned, as if revealing a most simple answer to humanity’s toughest riddle. “It’s passing.”

“It’s ‘I’ve got a good shot, but you’ve got the best shot.’ These players are all great shooters. It’s shot selection,” he responded, acknowledging there are many ways to win but quickly imparting more credit to his players for executing his vision.

Despite the 10-game winning streak – fifth longest active streak in the country – traversing this pandemic season certainly hasn’t been easy. You need look no further than one of their biggest wins this season – completing a two-game sweep over a veteran and tourney-minded Stetson team – to see how.

“19:02 to go in the second half, we’re down 20. We won by 10. We made 21 of 25 from the field. That’s 84 percent…we didn’t miss a shot the last ten and change!”

“And I had to spend the last five minutes…because it’s seven o’clock on a Saturday night, [talking about] how disciplined we had to be because of COVID. And I do not want to be the Debbie Downer, the negative guy that deflates the room, but I had to talk to them about that. And what makes it incredibly special…that night, because you can’t do anything…there was an MMA bout on, and they all came to the locker room. Again, they deserve so much credit. It gives me great optimism for the future, because they’re extraordinary young men.”

Ah yes, the future. Can this run be sustained with a bit of their target on their backs next year, and the year after that? It will help if they can pull in recruits, but with the NCAA tournament door potentially closed until at least 2024-25 season, it might be tough sledding.

But Davenport is all in on his university (both of his sons and their wives attended or worked at BU) and its facilities, tradition and the basketball excitement that lies in Louisville. They added three strong recruits this season. “The greatest recruiters in this program are our players,” adding that there will be a vote in April to reduce the transition period to two years.

He is not bothered by the fact that they will not qualify for the postseason tournament. Right now, his focus is on what he thinks is their toughest test all year. “We always stay where we are, we take the year as the segments come.”

“When you play a conference schedule, there’s gonna be a champion. So we don’t look at a postseason tournament or beyond, we always stay right where we are. Our focus is right now on our last ASUN conference game, which just so happens to be for a championship on Saturday.”

Others outside of the mid-major world are beginning to take notice too. Just before he rises to leave for morning practice, he is momentarily stopped by a beep on his phone. “[Notre Dame coach Mike Brey] just sent me a text – ‘Hey Scott, just love the way you guys are playing. Keep it rolling.’”

If his players can keep it rolling, the spotlight might be on them long after Saturday.