There is a proverbial saying that goes, as things change, they tend to stay the same.
Bellarmine basketball finds itself in a similar position, making the jump from Division II to Division I. Yet, with the jump, the team’s preparation has not changed or wavered.
“Honestly, it’s pretty similar in my opinion. We’re doing everything the same, we haven’t changed much like the goals are still the same,” said senior guard Ethan Claycomb. “It’s been very similar to what we’ve always done.”
The 2020-21 season will be Bellarmine’s first season in Division I, but those involved are not running from the challenge, they are welcoming it.
Prior to Division I:
In the last 11 season, Bellarmine basketball has made the NCAA Division II tournament every year.
In those 11 appearances (dating back to 2009) Bellarmine has made it to seven Sweet 16 games, four Final Four’s, and won one National Championship.
The team has been the model of consistency and competitiveness. They now hope to bring that consistency and competitiveness to the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Head coach Scott Davenport spoke on how critical the team’s resilience has been and will be headed into a new season in a new division and new conference.
“Their resilience. Their ability to stay focused has been incredible. I think that’s a testimony to them,” said Davenport. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Preseason projections and Bellarmine basketball:
In the ASUN preseason coaches poll, they projected Bellarmine to finish the season as the eighth team out of nine in the conference. Lipscomb, Liberty, Stetson, and North Florida all received at least one first-place vote.
In the media poll, they projected Bellarmine to finish last in the conference. And the same four teams received first-place conference finish votes.
And to add, the ASUN All Conference team did not feature one Bellarmine player on them. However, pre-season doubts are being used as a source of motivation for those in the locker room.
“It’s a pride thing. We have never played these teams. They don’t know how we play,” said Claycomb. “We just want to go out there and prove we are here to win games. We are not here just to compete, but to win.”
Davenport recognizes that the preseason polls, though they can be a source of pride or motivation, ultimately have no outcome on the season once it gets going.
“We were picked number one in the nation last year (Division II). And the players knew that wasn’t going to get a rebound or a defensive stop, or hit a bucket. They know that,” Davenport said. “Just because we are picked eight and ninth, they know that doesn’t matter either. The game is won and lost on the court, playing the game the way you are taught to play.”
What non-conference may look like for Bellarmine basketball:
Davenport’s tentative non-conference schedule shows just how much he believes in his team. Prior to travel restriction due to COVID-19, he had scheduled games at UCLA, at Gonzaga, at Mississippi State, and at Duke. Now, they will still play at Duke, but the Knights picked up games at Dayton, and home with Middle Tennessee, and home with Tennessee Chattanooga.
The Gonzaga and UCLA games are moved to next season.
When asked about how difficult it was to schedule during a pandemic Davenport said, “it just takes a lot of coaches being willing to work together to get it all done.”
The conference portion of the schedule is solidified, and you can find it on the Bellarmine basketball website.
Players to watch for the Knights:
Pedro Bradshaw, 6’7 guard/ forward. During the 2019-20 season he averaged 9.2 points per game while shooting 54 percent from the field, and 42 percent from three. With one full year in the program under his belt, and as a junior, he will be looking to assume a real leadership role on the team.
Nick Thelen, 6’7” forward. He is a sophomore who has been in Bellarmine’s program now for two seasons. Thelen did not play much in 2019, but his improvement over the past calendar year has been noted by his teammates. He is a rebounding threat, who punishes anyone who tries to stop him from grabbing a rebound.
“Whoever has to block him out, I feel sorry for them,” said junior guard Dylan Penn. “if the ball is on the rim, he’s just going to go get it.”
Dylan Penn, 6’3” guard. Entering his junior season, Penn has seen his scoring increase by eight points in between his freshman and sophomore seasons. He averaged 11.6 points per game and 3 assists last season. He gives the Knights another creator and leader on the floor, something that will be important for the team in its inaugural Division I season.
This season will be a bit of a mixed bag for Bellarmine basketball. However, the team is sticking to the important principles that got it to this point. The Knights have a history of success at every level, and Davenport trusts his players to go out and be the best they can be.
For a team’s inaugural season at the Division I level, there is a level of confidence among the players and coaches in what they can do, and what they have planned. A healthy culture built this program, and for the 2020-21 season, they will be relying on that culture to bring the team into its new age.
“We embrace every single day,” said Davenport. “We want to be the best we can be. Everything else will take care of itself. Everything that goes on in this locker, and in this gym, will determine everything that happens this season. And that is the way it should be.”
I am a college basketball writer primarily based in Nashville, covering all mid-major activity along with Big Ten hoops.