March 15th, 2017
Column: This defense never rests
They don’t look like much, this Bellarmine men’s basketball team. It’s starting five intimidates no one: a diminutive point guard, a 6-foot-1 two-guard, an undersized forward and a gangly, sometimes gawky post player alongside one heck of a 6-foot-5 do-it-all perimeter player in Rusty Troutman.
Individually, you don’t think much of them, even though they employ two first-team All-Conference players, the Defensive Player of the Year and two freshmen who made the conference All-Freshmen team. Again, individually, they just don't seem to pass the eye test.
But, collectively they play with an unquenchable fire to defend, rebound, play together and win. And they drain the soul of every opponent with a defense so debilitating, so absolutely smothering that the opposition come away complimenting Bellarmine as if it was an honor just to compete against a squad so complete, so together in every facet of the game.
They’re champions now, these Bellarmine Knights. They defended home court once again in the Midwest Regional title game with a resounding 84-66 win over No. 6 seed Findlay Tuesday night to advance to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight next week in Sioux Falls, S.D.
And they did it with defense. In 12 seasons under head coach Scott Davenport this team has put up incredible offensive stats. They’ve won four Midwest Regional championships—all of them at Knights Hall—in the past seven years. But this one stands out because of its defense.
The 2011 and 2012 teams included national players of the year in Braydon Hobbs and Jeremy Kendle; teams that were absolute scoring machines. The 2015 champions led by Jake Thelen, Chris Whitehead and George Suggs shot an astronomical percentage from the field, but none of those three teams could defend and rebound like this squad.
This Bellarmine team is the only team remaining in the Elite Eight that hasn’t allowed an opponent to score 70 points. They’ve given up just 61, 64 and 66 in this three-game run and 62, 68 and 61 in their three conference tournament games in the first week of March in Evansville.
They’re on an 18-game winning streak and have allowed an opponent 70 or more points in just three of those games, the last of which came eight games ago in a 96-72 blowout win over McKendree. In those 18 wins, opponents have scored just 63.1 points per game.
It starts with Al Davis, the Defensive Player of the Year in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Barely 5-foot-8, Davis scored 21 points, grabbed four rebounds, snagged two steals and dished out three assists while setting the tempo at both ends of the court. He plays with the heart of a champion; a heart that far surpasses his stature.
“They were 5 for 6 from three point range to start the game and they made some tough shots,” Davis said of the torrid start Findlay (25-7) enjoyed. “But the message was ‘get to the shooters’ and we did that. We closed out and made them take tough shots. They ended up making just 3 of their next 13 to finish the half. We made them make another pass, make another play and that was the difference.”
Davis is the unquestioned leader of this defense. The energy that emanates from this young man pours into his teammates and adds a dimension that very few teams can match, let alone overcome.
He’s quick on quick and anticipates angles and passing lanes as if he’s running the opposing team’s offense, not defending it. Davis joined forward Adam Eberhard, who had nine points, nine rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal, on the Midwest Region All-Tournament team.
“They have a very good team, play hard and work so hard on defense,” Findlay guard Elijah Kahlig said. “They cranked up their defense and made us work for every pass in the second half.”
The pressure Davis puts on the ball frees up junior guard Tyler Jenkins to do what he does best and that’s defend the passing lane and rip at the ball if an offensive player dares bring it down below his chest. Davis and Jenkins and junior reserve guard Jarek Coles are a three-headed monster of motion on defense that forced nine Findlay turnovers.
“I’m proud of our guys; we’ve preached all year that we have to defend to win,” BU assistant coach Beau Braden said. “We defend as a team and they do it together.
“Under coach Davenport, Bellarmine has traditionally been an offensive powerhouse and we still pride ourselves on offensive execution and shooting a high percentage," Braden continued. "But if you looked at the stat sheet over the last few years you could see that there was room for improvement on defense and on the backboards. Give the guys credit, they defended and rebounded so well and I know coach (Davenport) has been really proud all year of that effort.”
Though Findlay started the game scorching the nets hitting five of its first six attempts from beyond the arc, they only hit 5 of the next 25 from distance to finish 10 for 31 (32.3 percent). They shot 24 of 61 (39.3 percent) for the game. BU would outrebound the Oilers 35-29 and the Knights show their typical 50-plus percent from the field at 26 of 50 for 52 percent.
“They (Findlay) had 21 points at the first media timeout, but our ability to defend in the second half, as a team was extraordinary,” Davenport said. “We had 11 assists on 12 baskets in the first half and 20 on 26 baskets for the game. But the amazing thing was our ability to get stops. When we got stops and got in transition and shared the ball, we (the coaching staff) just got out of the way and cheered for them.”
There was plenty of noise from Knights Nation, as there has been at every Midwest Regional final. And the loudest roar was sent up for the captain, four-year starter and Midwest Regional Most Valuable Player Rusty Troutman. His younger brother Rhett subbed-in for him with a minute left and their embrace was special. The outpouring of affection from the Knights Hall capacity crowd sent chills down spines.
“It was so special to do this in front of these great fans,” Troutman said. “It was an emotional moment for me to know I won’t play on this court again, but we’re going to get right back to work tomorrow to prepare for next week and I can’t wait to do that with my brothers, my teammates.”
Troutman scored 26 on this night and 80 in the three regional contests. It was his 16 first-half points that kept Bellarmine in the game with a 41-39 lead at the half. The second half onslaught, Bellarmine outscored Findlay 43-27, began with several defensive stops that spurred a 14-4 run to give the Knights a 55-43 lead that kept expanding.
“Give credit to my teammates because we really turned up the defense and when we did that their offense went kaput,” Troutman said. “Al is so great all the time and Tyler (Jenkins) and Jarek (Coles) did a tremendous job. You just can’t score against those guys. We have guys that can shoot, drive, defend; it’s such a great feeling that we have a team full of players like that.”
The Knights (31-3) are 108-22 with Troutman on the roster and have won 44-straight games at Knights Hall. They haven’t lost at home since December 13, 2014 (12-13-14, go figure) in overtime to Florida Southern. That’s a span of 821 days of home wins.
It’s going to take three more wins in South Dakota in order for Troutman and his mates to enjoy one final love-fest at Knights Hall. With the way this team defends, they can find success anywhere; but they’ll carry that home court feeling wherever, whenever they play.
It’s part of their identity. They defend Knights Hall, Knights Nation, over all.