After hitting the six major conferences, it’s time to give some other talented teams their due.
I’m not a huge fan of the “mid-major” label, so I typically refer to these as “non-BCS teams” (although the BCS has negative connotations of its own). At any rate, I’m looking only at teams from outside the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. What you call those teams is up to you.
I’ve compiled a list of 25 teams to watch this season and will be plowing through them over the coming weeks. I’ll be hitting them in alphabetical order and will create a post to index all of them as I go. Keep in mind these aren’t necessarily the Top 25 non-BCS teams, but 25 squads I’ll be keeping an eye on this season.
That said, I expect many of them to be very good, starting with…
The Bruins were one of just nine teams to win 30 games last season, finishing 30-5 after a first-round loss to Wisconsin. They ended the season ranked 19th in the Pomeroy Ratings, thanks in large part to offensive and defensive efficiency numbers both in the nation’s Top 40. Belmont excelled in a number of areas, posting Top 20 numbers in terms of effective field goal percentage and offensive rebound percentage while finishing second nationally in defensive turnover percentage.
It would be easy to dismiss their success as a byproduct of a weak schedule, but they nearly knocked off Tennessee on the road and played a relatively tight game with Vanderbilt. They were a team I liked as a sleeper heading into the tournament, but the selection committee rewarded their stellar regular season with a nightmare matchup against Wisconsin.
Many teams who post gaudy win totals in non-BCS conferences boast a veteran roster, which leaves them ripe for a fall the following season. That’s far from the case with the Bruins. Last season, 11 players averaged at least 10 minutes, and nine of those players return including the top three scorers, top two rebounders and top two assist men. That’s not to say that Jordan Campbell and Jon House won’t be missed, but the cupboard is by no means bare.
Belmont’s top scorer is guard Ian Clark, who is on pace to challenge the school’s all-time scoring record. He has logged 66 starts in two seasons and scored at least nine points 30 times last year despite averaging under 25 minutes. Clark’s split between two- and three-pointers is pretty even, and he has proven to be adept at scoring from anywhere on the floor. His 59.6 eFG% was among the Top 60 in the country, and his overall efficiency checked in at a gaudy 118.8.
Clark is joined in the backcourt by point guard Drew Hanlen, who led the team with 4.0 assists per game last year. He’s more of a pure point guard than a scorer, and nearly three quarters of his shots come from beyond the arc. Hanlen boasts a tremendous assist rate and has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country.
Inside, Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders give Belmont a formidable 1-2 punch. Hedgepeth finished second in scoring (10.8 ppg) and led the team in rebounding with nearly six per game. He finished the season strong with at least 10 points in each of the final six games, including a run in the Atlantic Sun Tournament that saw him earn MVP honors. Hedgepeth is yet another high efficiency player on the Bruin roster, and he’s proven to be adept on the glass, particularly on the offensive end with a 12.6 offensive rebound percentage.
Saunders’ 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds may look run of the mill at first glance, but when you realize he posted those stats in just over 17 minutes per game, they look far more impressive. He provides tremendous energy and scoring off the bench and rates highly in a number of statistical categories. Saunders grades out well on both the offensive and defensive glass to go along with a 7.7 block percentage, good for 69th in the nation. More impressive than that are the eight fouls drawn per 40 minutes, which put him seventh nationally. Many smaller schools lack a capable big man, and at 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10, respectively, Hedgepeth and Saunders give Belmont two.
The fourth returning starter is Trevor Noack, who started the final 23 games of the season. Known primarily for his defense and rebounding, the summer prospectus on Belmont’s official site touts him as a breakout candidate this season. At the very least, he gives them another capable big body inside.
Key backcourt reserves include Kerron Johnson, J.J. Mann, and freshman Spencer Turner. Johnson led the nation is steal percentage at 6.3, and he also chipped in with a high assist rate. He’s more of a slasher than a spot-up shooter, which is evident by his 6.9 fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Mann was named to the A-Sun All-Freshman Team last year and provides decent outside shooting. Turner is the only new player in the program after racking up 94 wins in his high school career in Bloomington, Indiana. He gives the Bruins another terrific shooter and saw decent minutes during the team’s recent trip to Italy.
In the frontcourt, Brandon Baker, Blake Jenkins, and redshirt freshman Chad Lang provide additional depth. Baker is an energy guy off the bench, while Jenkins uses his athleticism to disrupt things on defense and contribute on the glass. Lang, the son of former NBA player Andrew Lang, redshirted last season, but he’s likely to see meaningful minutes this season. At 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, he gives Belmont yet another big body inside.
As mentioned above, the team recently returned from Italy where they won two of three games. The Bruins were able to give significant minutes to some of their younger players while getting an early look at this season’s rotation, which should serve them well heading into the upcoming season.
Coach Rick Byrd is entering his 26th season on the Belmont bench, and the team will be looking to win another Atlantic Sun title before moving to the Ohio Valley Conference next year. The Bruins’ full schedule has not been released yet, but they do have non-conference games scheduled against Duke and Memphis as part of the new stateside portion of the Maui Invitational. While a repeat of last season’s 30 wins will be challenging to say the least, Belmont’s talented nucleus places them among the top non-BCS teams heading into the 2011-12 season.
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