A year ago, Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd was disappointed when the media and coaches predicted the Bruins would finish third in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Byrd thought his squad should have been picked higher, especially since he lost just one letterman off a team that tied for the A-Sun title in 2009-10.
One year later, Byrd and his Bruins are getting all the hype they’ve wanted – and more.
Last month, A-Sun coaches and media chose Belmont as the 2011-12 preseason favorite. On Tuesday, the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top-25 poll, rated Belmont fourth behind just Gonzaga, Butler and Creighton. More impressively, just last week, the Bruins received eight votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. They earned votes in top 25 polls for nine straight weeks last year.
“I’m not a fan of any preseason polls really but ... that is something we would have died for 10 years ago,” Byrd said of the Top 25 recognition. “That part of all the attention is nice but it is how we handle it all and whether we’ve got the maturity to get to business and improve our team. You don’t have to be 31-4 to be an improved team. We can be a better team by the end of the year than we were a year ago. We have so many guys back with so much more experience.”
Despite the projections, the Bruins cruised to a 19-1 conference record and won regular season and tournament championships last season. They finished with a 30-5 overall mark and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Depth again will be the Bruins’ biggest strength. Eleven players averaged at least 10 minutes last year.
Belmont returns 10 of its top 12 scorers, including preseason all-conference selections Mick Hedgepeth, Scott Saunders and Ian Clark. On Wednesday, Hedgepeth, a 6-foot-9 senior, was named to the Lou Henson Preseason All-America team and needs just 145 points to surpass the 1,000-point mark.
The Bruins won’t be able to feel too good about themselves for much longer as they begin their season on Nov. 11 at No. 6 Duke. They then travel to No. 11 Memphis on Nov. 15. Both games are part of EA Sports Maui Invitational. Belmont is staying inland for the tournament and will play the final two rounds at Middle Tennessee State against Towson on Nov. 19 and either MTSU or UNC-Greensboro on Nov. 20.
Belmont’s first home game is Nov. 28 against Trevecca Nazarene and A-Sun play begins on Dec. 1 against visiting Kennesaw State.
“We know it doesn’t mean anything on the scoreboard and we’re going to have to go out and play good to beat both Duke, Memphis and everybody else we have on our schedule,” senior guard Drew Hanlen said. “We do look at [the preseason rankings], we think it is pretty cool, we’ll retweet it on Twitter but after that it is done with.”