Casey Alexander was calling from the opulent confines of the Holiday Inn Express in Richmond, Kentucky, her classic lodging, just off the interstate, next to the chain of restaurants that comes with the Ohio Valley Conference territory. This is a league of bus travel, basketball season built on two road games through mid-size cities in five states.
Road trips can be fun. But they are not easy or glamorous.
Alexander’s Belmont Bruins were between games last Friday (Eastern Kentucky the night before, Morehead State the following night) and were struggling after an 81-67 loss to the Colonels. It was his first loss since Dec. 5, snapping a 21-game winning streak. But he came up with a sizable excuse: The Bruins’ top scorer and offensive and defensive anchor at the low post, 6’11 ”Nick Muszynski, had missed the game with a foot injury.
Not everyone in sport marked the score box and was aware of the injury. So the immediate reaction in some circles was that Belmont had given up its small margin of error in terms of an overall NCAA tournament offering. In the tyranny of a tournament that caters for multi-bid power conferences, Alexander knows well that the fine on half of the major shows pays for any losses.
“It’s difficult,” he said of the burden of being near perfect. “But honestly, I don’t know how much our players think about it. I don’t think they felt that way. I never felt there was any pressure, even in [Thursday] game of the night “.
A day later and 67 miles northeast, the Bruins lost to Morehead in overtime, again without Muszynski, and again not many noticed or cared about that extenuating circumstance. In the court of public opinion, Belmont was moved to the category in which OVC teams chronically reside: automatic offer or bankruptcy.
The losses did not come against the homeless. Morehead finished the regular season 20-7 and won second place for the OVC tournament. Eastern Kentucky finished 21–6, winning third place. Belmont beat them both in early February by double digits. And, again, the Bruins had a key role in the rematch games, perhaps their most key part.
However, human voters practically abandoned Belmont as one of the top 25 options: The Bruins went from 27th with 80 points in the AP poll to 37th with five points; and from 29th with 45 points in the coach survey to 37th with 11 points. Computer ratings also fell: from No. 75 nationally before the road trip to No. 87 in the Ken Pomeroy metrics; from No. 79 to No. 93 at Bart Torvik’s. In simulated parentheses across the country, Belmont was viewed primarily as a 13th seed, that is, outside the bubble.
This is the annual plight of quality intermediate programs. The programming is difficult, the losses are punitive, March becomes essential. Drake (24-3) knows the sensation this year. The same goes for Winthrop (20-1).
Meanwhile, membership in power conferences has its privileges. Big East’s Seton Hall (13-10) also had a 0-2 week against a couple of teams that did not participate in the tournament, Georgetown and Butler, but the Pirates are in many mock brackets and only in most others. . Indiana (12-12) has lost three straight ahead of a game at Michigan State on Tuesday night, but is still considered to be in the bubble. Siracusa, 2-7 on the highway, is also hiding around the bubble.
As of Tuesday, no team in the United States has more than 24 Belmont wins. Only six teams have less than their three losses. And yet the Bruins are likely to be like hundreds of other big middle teams, heading into a conference tournament quarterfinal game Wednesday against SIU-Edwardsville thinking they need to win it all to go dancing.
Of course, the members of the NCAA selection committee may be looking at things completely differently than the bracket simulators, whose word is not gospel. They will certainly factor Muszynski’s injury into their assessment of Belmont, and the Bruins expect him to be available this week in Evansville. If they reach the OVC final and lose a well-played game against a team at the top of the league, they may still have a chance.
This happened in 2019, when Belmont was defeated in the championship game by Murray State and a boy named Ja Morant. Both teams got offers and both won games in the NCAA. But that Belmont team had what this team lacks: quality wins outside of the conference.
The 2019 Bruins beat UCLA and Western Kentucky, and won a pair against Nashville’s neighbor Lipscomb (who was coached by Casey Alexander). The current Bruins were scheduled to play in Orlando’s multi-team event, which was to include the likes of Gonzaga, Michigan State, Auburn, Saint Louis and Boise State. They also had games scheduled at USC, Western Kentucky, and Duquesne.
All of that was wiped out by the pandemic. So Belmont stuck with games against Howard, George Mason, Queens University Division II, Samford, Lipscomb, Kennesaw State and Evansville. The Bruins were 6-1 in those games, but the loss was costly, at home to a Samford team that was 5-3 in 2020 but 1-9 in 2021. That’s a Quad 4 loss that leaves a mark .
And still: Georgia Tech lost November games to Georgia State and Mercer, but is in the mix for a general offering. Being tied for sixth in the ACC is a far better position than winning the OVC when it comes to NCAA consideration.
Casey Alexander knows all this. He lived it in Lipscomb. That 2019 team that was swept by Belmont? They beat TCU, SMU, Vermont and finished the regular season 23-6. But the Bisons lost a tough ASUN final to Liberty and were turned down by the NCAA selection committee. Liberty won a game at the Big Dance and Lipscomb broke into the NIT championship game before losing to Texas.
Did that team led by Alexander deserve an offer? Yes. East? Very likely. Will he get one without winning three games at Evansville? Unlikely.
He may be mourning Belmont’s fate, but Alexander is not.
“It’s part of the madness,” he said. “I’d rather it be a case where we know we’re in, but whether you’re the No. 1 seed or the No. 8 seed, your back is against the wall. For me, the beauty of athletics is in those moments ”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.