Wednesday, December 11, 2019

    Bellarmine basketball can reach NCAA Tournament in Atlantic Sun


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    Bellarmine basketball has achieved great success over the years. Scott Davenport and players explain how it happened.
    Dominique Yates, Louisville Courier Journal

    Unless Bellarmine University officials have invited Louisville media to a press conference Tuesday to announce they are *not* making the move to Division I, it’s a safe bet to book the Knights as the newest member of the Atlantic Sun Conference. So what’s next?

    Bellarmine isn’t a football school, and the A-Sun isn’t a football conference. So the highest-profile splash the Knights could make at the next level would be reaching the NCAA Tournament — and it might be easier than it sounds.

    For one thing, Bellarmine comes into this thing with a little history on its side.

    Background: Bellarmine plans ‘significant announcement’ about Division I move

    The Knights won the NCAA Division II national championship in 2011 and have been a consistent threat in the league’s Elite Eight postseason tourney for years. They’re not completely coming out of nowhere here.

    Sure, the Knights don’t play in the KFC Yum Center or have Drake showing up at preseason practice, but Bellarmine has been a winning program for a decade-plus, and people have noticed. Much of that success has come under coach Scott Davenport, a Louisville institution who has publicly shown no interest in leaving the region — another factor that a lot of A-Sun teams couldn’t offer.

    That Louisville connection should serve the Knights well beyond that, too.

    Plenty of high school talent comes out of Louisville every year, and they aren’t all signing with Chris Mack or John Calipari. Just look up the road at Northern Kentucky, a program that made the Division I jump a few years back and has reaped the benefits ever since.

    NKU’s 2018-19 team featured six players from the Bluegrass State, including 2018 Kentucky Mr. Basketball winner Trevon Faulkner and two players from the Louisville area in Pleasure Ridge Park grad Gerald Gray Jr. and former Bullitt East standout (and U of L walk-on) Tyler Sharpe, who averaged 14.4 points per game. Lavone Holland II starred at NKU for three seasons, earning 2018 A-Sun Tournament Most Valuable Players honors and leading the Norse to an NCAA Tournament, and he played high school ball at Ballard.

    All of those kids made a decision to play at Northern Kentucky, and we’re not saying any of them would have chosen Bellarmine if the Knights were a Division I option in the past. But you’re telling me some of that high school talent coming out of Louisville wouldn’t be interested in playing in front of the hometown fans for four years in college?

    Related: How Bellarmine became the biggest little program in college basketball

    Louisville basketball mailbag: Starting point guard, NCAA violations, scheduling

    Making the NCAA Tournament isn’t easy in any conference, and it’s even harder in a smaller league like the A-Sun. Even going undefeated and losing in your conference tournament title game isn’t a guarantee to make it to March Madness — you basically have to take home that conference tourney hardware to earn an invite to the Big Dance. So that’s one factor working against the Knights.

    But if you’re fielding a competitive team, you should at least have an outside chance to score an upset or two in the conference tournament most years. This year, Liberty pulled one off against a good, talented Lipscomb team — a team that went on to lose to Texas in the NIT championship — to reach the Big Dance. These things happen.

    (And while we’re at it, no disrespect to the A-Sun, but Bellarmine hasn’t looked out of place on the court in recent exhibitions against Division teams like Louisville and Cincinnati, and famously beat Xavier in an exhibition game years back — the Knights shouldn’t need much time to catch up to Stetson and Kennesaw State and other A-Sun noncontenders.)

    We’re not going to half-court heave this prediction and say the Knights will be playing into March next year. But picking Bellarmine to reach the NCAA Tournament within five years of the move? That’s a layup.

    Lucas Aulbach can be reached at laulbach@courier-journal.com, 502-582-4649 or on Twitter @LucasAulbachCJ. Support strong local journalism and subscribe: www.courier-journal.com/lucasa.





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