Coronavirus has ended sports for a while, but if you don’t mind, I want to take a look back at the 2019-20 college basketball season anyway.
But I am not talking about Power-5 schools. Nor am I talking about the pure parody that has existed on the top end of college basketball. The remarkable thing within this season has been something else completely.
Belmont University, amidst all the drastic changes, has managed to stay on top of the Ohio Valley Conference. It lost its head coach of 33 years, lost its leading scorer from last season to the NBA draft, and saw a start to conference play that featured a loss to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Yet, amidst it all, they found a way to rattle off 12 straight wins to end the season. They are a trademark example of team building. Let’s take a look.
The Idea of Team Building:
To understand team building, one first has to know its foundation and theory.
Bruce Tuckman in 1965 developed a theory of how teams run. He broke it down into stages, and in each one, the team interacts differently and performs differently as well.
The five stages are forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.
In the forming stage, it’s rather self-explanatory, the team forms. They establish a relationship with one another and get accustomed to each other. This stage often presents itself as a period of uncertainty amongst the group.
What comes next is the storming stage. This is the most difficult stage to navigate in team building because it’s when most conflict arises. Storming is where different personalities conflict with each other, and a leadership order is being established.
The norming stage is predicated on if a team makes it through the storming stage. This is where things begin to run smoothly, and the team is gearing towards what is known as peak performance.
Lastly, during peak performance, teams can complete tasks with efficiency because of everyone knowing their roles within the team. In essence, this means finding their groove.
After peak performance is the adjourning phase, where the team has accomplished its goals and subsequently falls apart.
So how does this apply to Belmont Basketball?
For 33 years, Belmont basketball could circumvent the natural process of team building.
It didn’t have to go through the storming and norming stages of team building. Rick Byrd was there for that.
There was a clear pecking order, and a clear set of things athletes on the team were to do. No phones at the dinner tables. Set practice hours that seemingly never deviated. The team norms were established.
This allowed teams to reach peak performance quicker.
The ten regular-season conference championships since the year 2000 speak for themselves.
In turn, Belmont fans are a spoiled bunch.
They are used to seeing peak performance from the tip-off of each season. With each year bringing minor roster changes, players found their respective roles, and it created a world of seamless transitions and seemingly endless win streaks.
Well, that changed with Casey Alexander.
A new shepherd leads his flock
The Coach Alexander era opened up with a loss to Illinois State.
It was a close game, but down the stretch, the team didn’t know who to go to. In turn, they began pressing and forcing the action in attempts for someone to make a play.
In my mind, it looked like a team just trying to figure things out.
Then, as a team, Belmont hit the honeymoon phase. The ‘honeymoon phase’ is where everyone is trying so hard to fit in that no one stood out.
They rattled off four wins in dominating fashion, masking their mistakes in the process. The mistakes? Lack of bench production, turnovers, and sloppy half-court defense. Any rational fan could conclude that if these issues weren’t cleaned up, a bad loss was coming. Then, it did.
SIUE 79, Belmont 69.
The team looked done. In a conference that has Austin Peay and Murray State, whom Belmont later lost to on the road, there was no conceivable way they could compete. They just couldn’t figure it out.
They were bound to end with a losing season because there was no longer a circumvention of the team-building process. There was no clear mark of stability. Rick Byrd, gone. The Bruins winning ways, gone as well.
For a moment, they were dead in the water. The team was stuck norming.
But then something changed
Then it all began to click. Coach Alexander’s offensive systems began to make sense.
They were feeding Nick Muszynski, the seven-footer, early and often. Adam Kunkel began shooting the leather off the ball again. Grayson Murphy started looking like the best player in the conference nightly.
Most of all, they were having fun and playing for each other.
This, finally, was peak performance.
First came the statement win at home against Murray State, 71 to 64.
Then another one against Austin Peay, 71 to 63.
What followed were six straight wins to close out conference play, and a previously reeling Belmont team found its rightful spot atop the conference come tournament time.
Top seeds get double byes, meaning Belmont didn’t have to play until Friday, which was a blessing and a curse.
The semifinal ended up seeding Belmont up against EKU. The Bruins dispatched them in a game that was never really in doubt. That meant they had to play the Murray State Racers for the third time.
The game was an instant classic.
“Anyone that turned the channel, shame on them,” were the words of Coach Alexander after the game.
The Bruins won off of a late-game play drawn up by their first-year head coach. Graduate transfer Tyler Scanlon made a reverse layup with 3.8 seconds left. Murray State didn’t get a shot off, and the Bruins won again.
12 wins in a row, yet, it didn’t seem astounding. It just seemed like the team was where there were supposed to be – at peak performance. And even so, they were just getting started.
Any team riding a 12 game win streak with its conference tournament championship all but in-hand is a real NCAA tournament threat.
The night of March 7 was a night of celebration. Not only because the Bruins finally vanquished the Racers in an OVC championship, but also because this team had what it takes to make a deep run.
They were operating at peak performance. The only difference was that they had to go through the fire first.
They didn’t have the stability of Byrd. They didn’t have the reliability of Dylan Windler or Kevin McClain. Everything had fundamentally changed, and they had to spend the season learning how to play with each other.
They spent the season learning to win for each other. In doing so, they went through the major stages of team building, whether intentional or not.
The gravity of the uncontrollable
This article was supposed to be a column covering Belmont’s dance into the Sweet 16. Instead, it’s a realization that Belmont never got a chance to take its peak performance to the national stage.
The Bruins never got to fight with the big dogs. It never got to play the role of the giant slayers. It never got to wear the glass slipper or become the bracket buster they surely could have been. What a damn shame. The Bruins journey was pulled apart by something so unfathomable – a pandemic.
Now, Bruins fans, hunkered down in their homes, are left with a season of “what ifs.”
Could this win streak extend to 14, pushing the Bruins along to a Sweet 16 appearance? Maybe.
Could Adam Kunkel show the world what a prolific shooter is on a national stage? Probably.
Could Casey Alexander silence the doubters, win back to back tournament games, and become a Belmont legend? Hopefully.
It’s very rare that a team reaches peak performance at the right time of the year. In fact, it’s rare that teams get there at all, and that makes what happened all the more painful.
All Bruin fans are left with at this point is an OVC championship, which is not too bad, and a bag of what-ifs. Things might be worse for the players, though.
What they get left with was a chance to touch God and become immortalized in the world of college basketball, but the reality of this situation is dragging them back down to earth.
Belmont’s adjourning stage was premature. The team’s goals laid directly ahead of it. And just like the rest of us, the Bruins are stuck imagining, “what if?”