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VOL. 44 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 20, 2020

In & out: Belmont’s brief NCAA tourney journey

By Chip Cirillo

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Belmont head coach Casey Alexander reacts after a play during the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game between Belmont and Murray State. Belmont secured the OVC’s automatic bid to an NCAA tournament that won’t be played.

-- Photo By Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

Belmont coach Casey Alexander will be at a beach in Florida on Thursday and Friday. That wasn’t his original plan. The first-year basketball coach was supposed to be leading his team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on one of those days before the event was canceled due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic last week.

“Our players have all gone home,” Alexander says. “They’ve (left) campus and with everything being shut down I’m just going to go take my family and spend a few days together and decompress. And then we’ll figure it all out when that’s over.”

Alexander certainly needs to decompress after all the highs and lows his team went through last week. The Ohio Valley Conference has canceled all sports for the 2019-20 academic year. There isn’t much college coaches can do right now.

“We’ve got to be given the go ahead,” Alexander says. “We can’t recruit off campus, we can’t recruit on campus. There are no events taking place for us to go to.

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for a moment like this,” he adds. “It’s been crazy. We walked out on the floor (last) Wednesday for our first practice right after the news that all the games would be played at empty arenas, so that was a little bit of a blow.

“And then we practiced pretty much in anticipation that the whole thing would be suspended or canceled. And then after practice we found out that news as well, so it’s been a tough week, but, hey, this is life.”

Uncharted territory is a description many have used to describe the suspended NBA and NHL seasons in addition to the canceled NCAA and SEC tournaments just to name a few in the wake of the pandemic.

“I’m 47 and I’ve never encountered anything like this,” Alexander acknowledges. “I’ve got a lot of faith and trust in the people that are following it closely and making decisions on our behalf and that’s really all we can do is support them.”

Belmont was on spring break when the tournament was canceled and it was extended one week. The next two weeks will be online classes only. The earliest students could return to classes would be April 6.

Alexander didn’t have to tell his players about the tournament being canceled. They already knew.

“With social media these days, I don’t ever get a chance to tell them anything,” Alexander says. “They know it before I have a chance to tell them.”

The players and coaches first talked about it at a season-ending team meeting last Friday.

“It was difficult,” Alexander adds. “When you put your whole heart and soul into a season and you do it with a group of 20-plus people as far as coaches and staff, and then it comes to an abrupt end before you’re ready that’s a hard way to finish up.”

Alexander found out about the cancellation the same way most of the basketball world did. “On my phone,” he says.

There were mixed emotions at the meeting, but Alexander says his players understand why the NCAA made the decision.

“They’re disappointed they’re not going to be able to play in the tournament, but we’ve got a smart group,” Alexander continues. “We’ve got a group of players that have bigger plans in life than just being basketball players. We kept it in perspective, they understand.”

Seniors Tyler Scanlon (12.5 ppg), Michael Benkert and 6-foot-11 backup center Seth Adelsperger reached the end of their careers.

Even though he’s also disappointed that March Madness turned into March Sadness, Alexander understands that public health officials are trying to slow down the spread of the virus.

“It’s clear that we’re acting with an abundance of caution and it’s also clear that there’s reason to do so,” Alexander acknowledges. “I don’t understand it all. I don’t understand the severity of the potential risk and so forth. So, I have just chosen to leave it up to the experts and follow their lead. That’s all we can do.”

Director of Athletics Scott Corley says Belmont fully supports the NCAA’s decision to cancel the tournament.

“Obviously, this is uncharted waters for all involved,” Corley says. “In situations like this, it is always best to err on the side of caution in order to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes and coaches. I am disappointed for our players and coaches, but this was the right decision given the circumstances.”

“There are always things we can do, but really they’ve just kind of shut us down for all intents and purposes.”

Shutdowns like this are unprecedented for Alexander, who kidded that the only previous interruptions to his sports seasons were baseball rainouts.

Belmont (26-7) won its last 12 games to sweep the OVC regular-season and tournament titles in his first season as head coach.

The Bruins earned their ninth NCAA Tournament bid since 2006.

Scanlon’s reverse lay-in with 3.8 seconds left gave Belmont a 76-75 win over Murray State in the OVC Championship.

“We’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” Alexander says. “We had a great season.”

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