While all eyes were on the highly touted backcourt duo, Rick Byrd kept gravitating toward the gaping hole in the middle. At least that’s how Belmont’s coach viewed the situation prior to the season.
With interchangeable centers Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders gone, Byrd worried about the presence in the post. Yes, he knew his guard play from Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson would carry the team most nights. But would a deficiency inside doom the Bruins in the long run?
Trevor Noack didn’t think so. His opinion mattered. After all, he was going to be the one playing the crucial center position.
“It really wasn’t a concern for me,” Noack said. “I was ready to accept the role. I felt like it was something I was comfortable stepping into.”
Halfway through the season, Noack has helped rid Byrd of his big man worries. Moving from power forward, the senior has exceeded his coach’s expectations. Despite giving up size, the 6-foot-7, 240-pounder averages 12.9 points and a team-high 5.6 rebounds and is shooting the third-best clip from 3-point range (47.7 percent) in the Ohio Valley Conference.
His consistency has contributed to another fast start for the Bruins (13-4, 4-0), who have won four straight and six of seven. They’re one of three undefeated teams in the OVC East Division. They host both – Eastern Kentucky (14-3, 4-0) and Tennessee State (11-7, 5-0) – over the next three days, starting with EKU on Thursday.
“You can easily say the way he has played has elevated us to wherever we are,” Byrd said. “I think our team has played so far this year as well as the [NCAA Tournament] teams the past two years. I just didn’t think we were [going to be] as good. But I didn’t think he was going to do what he has done. He is another weapon that I didn’t count as a weapon.”
It was easy for Byrd to believe what he did because Noack had been relatively quiet his first three years.
The native of Keller, Texas, hadn’t averaged more than 5.2 points in a season and averaged just 7.9 minutes last year off the bench.
But Noack believes most of his growth came in practice, where he often guarded Hedgepeth (6-foot-9, 235 pounds) and Saunders (6-10, 250).
“I felt like it was good for them as well as good for me,” Noack said. “I got to defend really two big guys and that definitely helped me for this year, having to guard other big guys who are maybe just as good. So it really just helped me develop my defensive game in the post.”
To that end, Byrd never saw Noack as a defensive liability.
“He has always been a good defender,” Byrd said. “He draws more charges than the rest of his teammates combined. He is strong, tough and physical and can hold his own against bigger, stronger guys.”
Still, he had a long way to go to measure up to his predecessors' standard at the offensive end.
Hedgepeth and Saunders combined to average nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds last year. Replacing that total was going to be tough. He was asking Noack and Blake Jenkins, who is averaging 9.3 points and 5.4 rebounds, to make a seamless transition and fill the void.
Both have answered the call, especially Noack.
His ability to step outside and knock down 3-pointers gives most opponents fits, including Kansas. He made a career-high three and scored 19 points against the Jayhawks on Dec. 15, the beginning of a seven-game stretch where he averaged 16 points. He capped off the spurt last week with a career-high 30 points against Southeast Missouri State. He was 10-of-16 from the field against the Redhawks and drained three 3-pointers.
His 21 3-pointers are third on the team and another weapon – though overlooked at the beginning of the season – for Belmont.
“He provides a lot of problems for their matchups and he opens up things for the rest of us,” Johnson said. “When you have a five-man like him who can step out and play with his back to the basket and face up from 15 to 20 feet, that is tough to guard, man. A lot of five-men aren’t able to replicate that in practice. They don’t see it. They’re not used to it.
“With him playing as well as he is right now, it just makes us really, really, really hard to beat.”