Belmont’s one-point loss to Duke in the 2008 NCAA Tournament reaffirmed what Drew Hanlen believed — the Bruins could play with anybody.
Nearly four years later, the senior guard wants to prove they can beat anyone.
That starts with No. 6 Duke at 8 p.m. Friday (ESPNU/ESPN3.com) at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium as part of the inland portion of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
“I think we are past the point of moral victories,” said Hanlen, who was a high school senior when 15th-seeded Belmont fell to No. 2 seed Duke 71-70. “Instead of just an experience, I look at as an opportunity for this program to make a statement and put us on the map.”
Junior guard Kerron Johnson, from Huntsville, Ala., was a high school junior when Belmont last played Duke. He grew up rooting for the Blue Devils, idolizing Jason Williams, Shane Battier, J.J. Redick and others. He was being recruited by Belmont and said the team’s fight against Duke “pushed them up on the list.”
Hanlen, on the other hand, had already signed a national letter of intent to play for Belmont. As he watched the game with nearly 100 friends near his home outside of St. Louis, he gained more confidence in what the program could accomplish.
“It made me feel really comfortable about my decision,” Hanlen said. “It also kind of finally hit home that we had a chance to do something special once I got on campus and once I became part of the Belmont basketball program.”
The Bruins are coming off a special season, going 30-5 and reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years. With 10 lettermen back after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season and tournament championships, they believe they are loaded again to make a similar run.
Six of the top seven scorers return to a team that used its depth to wear down opponents last year. Eleven players averaged at least 10 minutes and a similar rotation is expected this year.
“I think everybody is hungry right now,” Johnson said. “We’re excited. We feel like we should expect a lot and Coach [Rick Byrd] expects a lot of us. We’re ready.”
Duke lost three players to the NBA from last season's 32-5 team that reached the Sweet 16. Notable returners for the Blue Devils are forwards Mason and Miles Plumlee — both 6-foot-10 — and guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins.
Duke is nearly untouchable at home — it has won 86 straight games at Cameron Indoor against non-conference opponents, dating back to Feb. 26, 2000.
Only once in its 14-year Division I history has Belmont defeated an Associated Press Top 25 team. The Bruins upset No. 23 Missouri back in 2003.
“This is obviously a big opportunity that we can’t just say, ‘Oh, we played at Duke. Oh, we played at Cameron,’” Hanlen said. “This is something we have to try to make the most of and help those moving forward and help the commitments we might need in the future.”