By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
After a disappointing, yet successful Wednesday evening at Chaifetz Arena. Saint Louis basketball is back at it this afternoon with another opportunity to measure themselves against top-level talent. And while this test is by no means the same degree of test the Seton Hall game was, it may be a more accurate test subject for the Billikens.
The Belmont Bruins are the premier program of the Ohio Valley Conference. They will be SLU’s guests on Saturday afternoon when the two squad’s tip-off at 4pm local time. The Bruins have won six of the past seven OVC regular-season titles and have made appearances in the big dance in 8 of the last 14 seasons. But a lot changed in the offseason, and the Bruins are a new team in many senses.
After 33 seasons at Belmont Coach Rick Bryd has retired, and a new era of Bruins basketball started this year. His replacement, Casey Alexander, comes with a wealth of experience and success from programs far less established than Belmont. Coaching at Lipscomb and Stetson previous to his move to Nashville, Casey led his programs to three consecutive twenty-win seasons, making the NCAA tournament at Lipscomb in 2018.
The Bruins also graduated two of their most celebrated players in school history after last season. Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain have both moved onto the greener pastures of the NBA. Windler was a first-round pick and is currently with the Cavaliers. In contrast, McClain signed a free-agent deal with the Warriors but wasn’t able to make the regular-season roster.
Despite all these changes, ones that shook the very core of the program, Belmont is once again favorites to win the OVC. Belmont has been able to consistently find the right pieces to be competitive year after year. Developing waves of talent to never be too far out of reach from March Madness. This year, the Bruins will turn to a trio of sophomores to lead their program into the new era.
Grayson Murphy, a guard, coming off a standout freshmen campaign, is a distributor who makes his teammates better. Leading his team in assists and is third in scoring over their first 5 games. Murphy is very much Belmont’s version of a Yuri Collins. The significant difference is Murphy also leads his team in rebounding, grabbing a team-high 47 boards in their first 5 games.
Another sophomore guard who leads this team is Kentucky native Adam Kunkel, who leads his team’s offense with 21.2 points per game. Kunkel is a pure three-point shooter and will be the most challenging challenge the Billikens will face from the Bruins. Shooting the three at an eye-popping 48% from three on 45 attempts, Adam is automatic from a distance. Stopping or ‘pausing’ Kunkel will be imperative for Billiken’s success.
The third sophomore who commands attention on the roster is Nick Muszynski, a 6’11 center. Improving his scoring numbers from his rookie campaign, he is now averaging 15.6 a night. The big man was the OVC freshmen of the year and is in the truest sense of the term, a rim protector. His shot-blocking rivals that of Hasahn French as he had over 70 in his freshmen campaign and already has 10 this early in the season.
The Bruins are an offensive driven team, they move the ball better than just about anyone the Bills have played. They will not outsize or bully the Billikens as Seton Hall did, but they will make teams pay if you give them open shots. They will beat you and do it with style. That’s how they put up 100 on Boston College and have scored 90+ three times this season.
On the other side of the coin, Belmont’s lack of size, defense, and rebounding make them vulnerable to teams like the Billikens.
The message to the team (and the media) from Travis Ford after the Billikens win over High Point was to improve the team’s toughness. If the Bills players take that to heart, they can win this game.
Travis Ford made it clear as to what he felt ‘toughness’ meant, and it wasn’t merely being bigger and more demeaning against opponents. He wants to see his guys play focused defense, show heart on 50/50 balls, and to rebound the basketball.
The Billikens cannot afford to be relaxed on defense. While they have clearly shown an understanding of how to be tough on the ball handler, the Bills off-ball defense too often fades away and leads to open shots or easy passing lanes. The Bruins are strong enough shooters to punish the Bills if they move to a zone, so the Bills will likely be challenged to keep up in a man-to-man defense.
On the boards, the Billikens will also have the opportunity to be dominant. The apparent best rebounder on the team is 6’2” guard Greyson Murphy, who will likely have to deal with Jordan Goodwin all evening on the glass. That’s just to say, few guards in the country rebound as well as Goodwin, and even if Murphy does win some rebounds, he will spend his evening battling for boards those balls. Additionally, the Bruins big man, Nick Muszynski, is not a particularly great rebounder, only grabbing about 4 a night.
If the Billikens can limit second-chance points for the Bruins and out rebound them at both ends of the floor. They will have a substantial opportunity to cut into the strength, cut them off at the knees, and win the ball game.
Ultimately, this proves as another measuring stick game for the Billikens. The Bills were shown not quite advanced enough to battle with the national cream of the crop. But a win against a dominant conference team and a consistent NCAA tournament team would be an excellent result for this young Billiken squad.
The Billikens will be challenged, the Bruins do the one thing very well the Bills struggle with most, which is defending the perimeter. But if they can limit scoring from the outside, and play their game, they have a chance to get their first true statement win of the season.