The unknown scares Rick Byrd.
Belmont’s longtime basketball coach enters Friday’s season opener at crosstown rival Lipscomb with a bothersome sense of uncertainty — but not about his team. After winning 27 games and reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in seven years, the Bruins return 11 lettermen, five seniors and their top two scorers, preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference selections, guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson.
What worries Byrd are Lipscomb’s question marks. The Bisons feature nine newcomers, including seven freshmen, and just six returning lettermen. Only two started more than 10 games for a team that went 13-18.
“For us, the difficulty is they’ve got so many new players and we haven’t seen them play,” Byrd said. “We’re flying in the dark. [Lipscomb coach] Scott [Sanderson] has been there a long time and you can assume that they’re going to do a lot of the same stuff he likes to do. But you don’t know.”
Usually the season’s first installment of the Battle of the Boulevard takes place in January, shortly after the opening of Atlantic Sun Conference play. Typically, both teams have played at least 10 games and have plenty of film of each other.
With Belmont’s move to the OVC, however, the schools had to make room on the non-conference schedule. So the 59-year-old rivalry makes its earliest premier when the teams tip off at 6:30 p.m. at Allen Arena. Lipscomb returns the trip to Belmont on Dec. 4.
“I like having 13 or 14 games under our belt and being able to game plan a little bit better for them,” Sanderson said. “We’re playing a lot of guys who it is their first time in that kind of game, first game of the year for them. But I think it is exciting for college basketball, especially for Nashville, to have us open up and kick the basketball season off.”
The teams have split the series the last two seasons but Lipscomb has won five of seven and holds the all-time edge, 73-57.
There’s no mistaking who the underdog is, though. The Bisons are coming off a dismal season that Sanderson says “I wouldn’t wish upon anybody.” Four players were dismissed and promising guard Zavion Williams transferred after one season.
“We’ve got a completely new team,” sophomore forward Martin Smith said. “We’re expecting good things but it is going to take us a while to get used to each other. ... I feel like a lot of teams are writing us off and expecting us to have a bad year. I feel like we should surprise a lot of people.”
Only three returners made starts last year — lone senior guard Deonte Alexander (8.6 points per game) and sophomores and twin brothers Malcolm (9.9) and Martin Smith (5.9). But despite the youth, Sanderson is more optimistic about this team chemistry and the new parts.
In the front (court) is 6-foot-10 center Stephen Hurt. The Siegel High product redshirted last year after he tore the MCL in his left knee last August during a basketball mission trip in the Dominican Republic. He dominated his debut last week in an exhibition against Freed-Hardeman, recording a double-double with 21 points and 12 rebounds. The Bisons also welcome two junior college transfers, guard Khion Sankey and center Oscar Garcia, who could make an immediate impact.
“We’ve got some pieces that we didn’t have last year,” Sanderson said. “We’ve got a guy inside [Hurt] that we can go get baskets from. We haven’t had that since Adnan [Hodzic] left [after 2010-11]. He’s a factor in there. Some of our returning pieces have really, really improved. Martin Smith has really, really improved his basketball game. We signed a couple junior college players on purpose. One a guard and one a big guy. Both of those guys will have added value to us as well.”
While no one is expecting much of Lipscomb — the Bisons were picked to finish eighth in the A-Sun — Belmont can’t fly under the radar.
Byrd’s not too keen on preseason polls but the Bruins are the popular pick right now. They were tabbed to win the OVC’s East Division and picked ninth in CollegeInsider.com’s preseason Top 25 poll.
“I don’t think we’re that good,” Byrd said. “I hope our team proves me wrong. We’ve got a whole lot to prove."
He possesses one of the most talented backcourts in the OVC with Clark (12.7 ppg) and Johnson (13.8). But it is the tandem he lost that troubles him. Big men Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders and their valuable 10 fouls per game are gone.
Senior Trevor Noack will give up some height to play an unfamiliar position of center. Byrd believes Noack, 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, can hold his own down low but worries about depth. Unproven redshirt sophomore Chad Lang, a 6-foot-11, 275-pounder, has a broken hand and is questionable to play. Blake Jenkins, an athletic 6-7 wing, will rotate between small forward, power forward and center. Fifth-year senior forward Brandon Baker will provide relief off the bench.
Therefore, Byrd has a lot of possibilities. Whether he has a championship team is unknown.
“We’ve got good guards and decent depth at the perimeter spot,” Byrd said. “It is hard to be a championship team without guards but it is hard to be a championship team without a really good inside game. So I’m not as confident right now as I was either of the last two years.”