Transfer madness missed Belmont basketball, leaving Bruins with maybe their best team ever | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

A campus privy to good men's basketball over the years might not have seen what's cooking this season.

The possibilities at Belmont, on paper, are delicious.

I mean, just look at the roster. Look at the attrition. There wasn’t any. The transfer madness that engulfed men’s college basketball this offseason somehow skipped Belmont's newly-built Crockett Center, a sparkling facility with unblemished walls, unfinished offices and that new building smell.

Inside, the Bruins of 2021-22 is a team brimming with the confidence of experience. Since they know each other so well, they know this: 

“We’re good enough to compete with anyone in the country,” said big man Nick Muszynski.

Belmont's Nick Muszynski has recovered from a late-season slump and an ankle injury and appears prepared to help the Bruins finish the regular season strong.

It'd be difficult to disagree. Last season’s Bruins – led by Muszynski's 15 points per game – at one point were being compared to former coach Rick Byrd’s all-time best Belmont squads. They went 26-4 last season for Casey Alexander. They won 21 games in a row.

But they lost three of their last five. Failing to win the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament cost them a spot in the NCAA and NIT Tournament – an especially bitter fate under the circumstances.

It wasn’t fair that COVID-19 canceled Belmont’s better non-conference games last season, leaving its schedule too feeble for at-large selection. Wasn’t fair, either, that COVID-19 had wiped out the previous season’s NCAA Tournament after that Belmont team had already qualified by winning the OVC.

So here they are still, a bunch of good players, hungry and aggrieved.

Back are Belmont’s top seven scorers from last season and five graduate transfers, among them Muszynski and starting guards Grayson Murphy and Luke Smith.

“Maybe we got a little lucky in the sense that there’s definitely still more out there to prove,” said Alexander, entering his third season at Belmont after switching over from Lipscomb to replace Byrd. “If we were coming off a Sweet 16 team last year or something like that, maybe they feel like, ‘Well, what else can we do at Belmont?’ But even then, I would choose to believe they’d come back for more.”

Overall, about 97% of the points and minutes returned for Alexander. Belmont also added a couple of promising freshmen (Isaiah Walker and Will Richard) to a roster that lost only one role player (Mitch Listau), who moved closer to home.

It'll be surprising, frankly, for any NCAA Division I basketball program to have only one transfer in this new era of widespread transience and rule changes to ease restrictions on players jumping ship.

But it was stunning to see it at a top mid-major program like Belmont, which has so much proven talent and experience. After last season's success, the Bruins' roster would have seemed especially ripe for plucking by Power Five coaches looking to restock their own depleted rosters.

“Moose (Muszynski) and Grayson could have played anywhere in the country,” Alexander said. “And they had people calling behind the scenes and working third-party channels and everything else. It speaks a lot to their loyalty to Belmont and their belief in Belmont.”

I asked Muszynski and Murphy about the potential for opportunities elsewhere. Each responded as if it hadn't crossed their minds.

“Never considered it,” said Murphy, who played at Independence High School. “Born and raised here, I always wanted to go to Belmont. Love this city. Love this team. Love the coaching staff. Belmont was always going to be home for me if I had a chance. And since I had a chance, I never thought about leaving.”

“I never thought that was an option,” echoed Muszynski. “I love where I’m at, and I’m not really a believer that the grass is always greener on the other side.”

For what it's worth, the pandemic gave Murphy and Muszynski another season of college eligibility past this one if they want it. But for now, they don't want it. Each is in agreement that this is going to be his final season, and their teammate Smith actually has a head coaching job lined up next season at Knoxville Catholic High School.

So it's clear that this season is going to be it for this generation of talent at Belmont – a group that has seemingly done everything of late except enjoy the Big Dance.

“We have reason to believe we can do special things,” Alexander said, “and perhaps things that have never been done before (at Belmont).

“But we are still who we are.”

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.