Belmont’s men’s basketball team closed the door on one of its most memorable eras last spring when the careers of five seniors, led by Alex Renfroe and Andy Wicke, ended.
The result is open competition at virtually every position as the Bruins try to reload without regressing when they – along with other teams – begin formal preseason workouts this weekend.
“It’s extremely open,” coach Rick Byrd said. “This is the most wide-open, earn-your-starting spot situation that I can remember.”
Graduation cost Belmont 85 percent of its backcourt minutes from last season and along with them went a significant chunk of their offense.
Of the 15 players on this season’s roster (including walk-ons) 11 are freshmen or sophomores. The only starter who returns is Jon House, and Byrd noted “even (Jon) will tell you he doesn’t know for sure whether he’ll be starting.”
In order for the Bruins to build on their four 20-win seasons and four NCAA tournament appearances in the last five years, they’ll need players such as senior Keaton Belcher and sophomore Mick Hedgepeth to assume a much larger role in the team’s success. Belcher has been named captain, and Hedgepeth, according to Byrd, has carried momentum throughout the offseason that he generated with strong play over the final 10 games of last season.
“Belcher played behind so many guys the last two or three years,” Byrd said. “Now he has a chance to step up.”
Still, Belmont also will need some contributions from its seven freshmen (two redshirts, five true freshmen) led by guard Ian Clark.
“We’ve had the luxury of experience the last two or three years. … (now) we are very fortunate in that, for a young team we have more talent in our young players than we’ve ever had,” Byrd said. “There is a level of confidence built in when you have a program that has had a certain level of success, and there is a value to a program’s success for an incoming player. Now, that’s not worth any points on the scoreboard, and this team has not won any games yet.”
Area college hoops outlook
A look at other story lines among area college programs as the formal workouts commence:
• Vanderbilt’s men’s program relied heavily on a group of freshmen led by Jeffery Taylor (12.2 points per game, 6.2 rebounds) and Brand Tinsley (11.0 points, 2.8 assists).
Those two, along with Steve Tchiengang (16 starts), Festus Ezeli, Lance Goubourne and Charles Hinkle all are a year older.
So, the question is: How much difference will that experience make?
• Belmont’s women’s team will be buoyed by the return of junior Shaunda Strayhorn, who red-shirted last season while she had a baby. Strayhorn started 40 games at point guard in her first two seasons, including 26 of 29 as a sophomore.
In addition to all the typical team activities, the Lady Bruins also have taken on babysitting as a unit.
• Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said he likes to put together a non-conference schedule that he feels matches his team’s talent level. It’s clear how much he likes his 2009-10 squad based on the fact that the Bisons at Vanderbilt, at Ohio State, at Cincinnati and at Arizona in the weeks leading up to conference play.
• Trevecca Nazarene’s men’s program is going to find out whether or not size really matters.
A year ago, the Trojans had one contributor who was 6-foot-6 or taller. This year they have five newcomers who are at least 6-foot-7 — Elij Brice (6-8), a junior college transfer; Keith Morris (6-7), a transfer from Lambuth; JP Nyardo (6-8) a freshman from Kenya; Pascal Permis (6-8), a freshman out of Florida; and Milos Macura (6-11), a freshman out of Serbia.
• First-year Tennessee State coach John Cooper has made it clear he intends to change the culture of the program, and if that means changing personnel, fine. Several players, including last season’s leading scorer, took the opportunity to leave and explore options elsewhere.
• Vanderbilt’s women’s team lost just two players to graduation (two others transferred) but those two – Christina Wirth and Jennifer Risper – were as valuable and as versatile as they come. They also were cornerstones of a movement for the team to get more athletic.
How the program fares without them will be a strong indicator of how that philosophy has progressed.
• The Trevecca Nazarene women will look to make it to their 11th straight NAIA national tournament, which takes the top 32 teams each year. With seniors Abby Lawson, a 2009 NAIA All-American, and Christian Gibson, who has started 93 of her 95 career games at point guard, Trevecca is ready to shoot for the tourney again.
• Nearing the end of his third decade as Lipscomb’s women’s basketball coach, Frank Bennett believes he has a team that is faster and more athletic than any in recent memory. To take advantage of those attributes, the Lady Bisons will look to score quickly – within the first three or four seconds of a possession – as often as possible.