Gonzaga, Baylor — sure, everyone knows the perfect pair at the top of the rankings. But who currently owns the third best record in the nation? Sign in please, those perennial high achievers from Nashville, whose campus is two miles from their nearest rival and two minutes from famed Music Row . . .
The Belmont Bruins. Now 20-1, winners of 32 of their last 33, sixth in the nation in shooting and assists, ninth in scoring, and in full pursuit of the Ohio Valley Conference title, as usual. Even as they make gallons of lemonade out of their lemons.
Because yeah, the COVID shadow threatened to cover up the whole program in the fall. “We were wrecked,” leading scorer Nick Muszynski said. “I think I missed 40-plus days of practice and I never even tested positive.”
Or how coach Casey Alexander remembers it: “From September 1 to December 10th, every player in our program missed at least 30 days. Every player. Many missed up to 50 and 60 days. We had one starter who had two days with the team the whole month of November. Literally, when we played our first game we had had three days in November with 10 or more people. Every other day we had six or less.
“I didn’t think in November we’d ever be good, much less doing that we’re doing.”
And yeah, Alexander had put together a non-conference schedule that would give the Bruins a chance to show their steel nationally, with regular season games against USC and Western Kentucky, and a spot in the Orlando Invitational that included Gonzaga, Xavier, Michigan State and Saint Louis. All of it was scrubbed by the pandemic.
“That definitely sucked,” Muszynski said. “I think if you ask anybody in here, we would play anybody on any floor at any time. And it’s not because we’re arrogant or cocky or we think we’re going to go out and beat Gonzaga by 30. We don’t believe that. But we love to compete.”
And yeah, they had to get over the searing disappointment of last March, when they beat Murray State in the final seconds of the OVC title game on a Saturday for their 12th consecutive victory —Here we come, NCAA tournament, and we’re on a roll! — and then watched it all fall apart the next Thursday when the rest of the season was aborted.
PERFECTION: Track every undefeated team so far
“It’s about as high and about as low as you can get,” said Muszynski, the 6-11 center who was named MVP of the OVC tournament. “I think the last time we won the OVC tournament was my sophomore year in high school. I didn’t even know who Belmont was at that point. We had overcome the mountain, we’re thinking we just now are playing our best basketball of the year. It was an unbelievably polarizing experience. The Saturday night I was a happy as I could be. That Thursday we had just gotten done with practice and were having lunch at Applebee’s, and it was just . . . done.”
Alexander had a team meeting the next day, and then his players went home for spring break. He didn’t see most of them again until August 23.
“The magic of a championship game, especially in the fashion that we won it, nobody can ever take that away from us,” he said. “But we had a chance to go do what March Madness is all about and we didn’t get that chance, which was tough.”
And yeah, Belmont lost three of its top five players from last season, including leading scorer Adam Kunkel, who decided to transfer to Xavier. In July. “Totally out of left field,” Alexander said. “The first mention I even heard it was a possibility was the day before he called me and told me he was leaving."
And yeah, there is not a senior on the roster.
All those yeahs, and still, Belmont is putting up numbers like, well, Belmont. Five players averaging in double figures, 18 assists a game, reigning OVC Defensive Player of the Year Grayson Murphy and all the rest. Transfer Luke Smith and freshman JaCobi Wood have fit right in, and Ben Sheppard is the starting guard who missed all but two days in November. Forward Caleb Hollander is the homeschooled native son of Nashville who scored 24 points in the game at Austin Peay that Belmont survived 81-76, after 26 lead changes.
“I attribute it to our culture,” Muszynski said. “It’s a very selfless group that we have. The brand of ball we play kind of reminds you of that.”
Plus, the players understand the Belmont past. “You don’t want to let that down,” Muszynski said. “You don’t want to be the team where, all of a sudden, you go under .500.” That culture is what pushed the Bruins through the COVID-racked autumn. “In hindsight, it was everything,” Alexander said.
A few things should be noted about Belmont:
The Bruins have won 26 consecutive conference games, and 20 in a row on the road or in neutral sites.
They’ve won 19 season or tournament conference championships since 2006, — more than anyone in the nation not named Gonzaga or Kansas. Their 299 conference wins since 2003 is second only to Gonzaga.
They’ve made 7034 3-pointers since going Division I in 1996. Only Duke has more.
Their only loss since Jan. 25 of 2020 was a 13-point Mulligan to Samford in December, 17 victories ago.
They’ve had 17 Academic All-Americans since 2001, waayyyyy more than any other school in the nation. Muszynski, with his 15-point scoring average and 59 percent shooting and 3.27 grade point average in corporate communications, might be the 18th. All five Belmont juniors are on schedule to graduate this spring.
This is Alexander’s second season at his alma mater replacing the iconic Rick Byrd. He didn’t have to come far, just two miles up the boulevard from Lipscomb, in the nation’s geographically closest rivalry. Alexander’s first season had its early bumps, but there was the fast finish, and now look at him.
The NCAA’s NET rankings is not yet dazzled — Belmont is No. 67 as of Wednesday — but the poll voters are starting to notice. Belmont moved into 32nd in the Associated Press this week, ahead of names such as Kansas and North Carolina. “I hope people are seeing the product we’re putting out there is good enough,” Muszynski said. “But if not, I know we know in our hearts we are.”
And all those heavyweights they might have faced?
“It was kind of a blessing and a curse,” Alexander said. “I don’t think we would have been ready to play those games early in the year, so we caught a break by not having to play them. I do think we would be prepared to play them now.”
Muszynksi has a thought about March. “We win the OVC tournament, we take care of business, we’re going to have an opportunity to play one of those teams. If we win, we’re going to have another opportunity to play one of those teams. It’s not like all hope is lost.”
Two years ago, Belmont was invited to the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid, beat Temple, and played Maryland to the wire. If the Bruins surprise anyone this year, they haven’t been paying attention.