No. 23: Belmont Bruins

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Midnight Madness is Friday. So we’re kicking off our college basketball coverage with our men’s preseason Top 25. Look for five teams posted a day, all this week.

2010-11 record: 30-5 (19-1), first in Atlantic Sun
Lost in NCAA tournament first round

Coach: Rick Byrd, 518-278, 26th year (610-333 overall)

Last NCAA miss: 2010

2011-12 roster [click here]
2011-12 schedule [click here]
2010-11 team stats [click here]

The good: The Bruins used their depth (an 11-man rotation) to create havoc on defense last season, which resulted in plenty of wins and an NCAA tournament berth. Neither will change in 2011-12.

Nine players are back, including starters Drew Hanlen, Ian Clark and Mick Hedgepeth, all of whom excel at scoring efficiently and in bunches when needed. Good thing, too. If Byrd’s squad is to be one of March’s giant killers, they’ll need plenty of both.

Belmont isn’t your typical undersized scrappy squad, either. Hedgepeth (6-9) and Scott Saunders (6-10) give them size, which shows in their offensive rebounding and blocks. Thirty wins isn’t out of reach for a second-straight season.

The bad: Belmont won 30 games, but none came against a BCS school. Tennessee took ‘em twice (though one win was 66-65) while Vandy and Wisconsin also dispatched the Bruins.

It’s not unusual for an Atlantic Sun team to struggle against bigger schools, but Belmont won’t have that excuse much longer. Byrd’s program moves to the Ohio Valley in 2012-13 where the competition is more fierce (Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech and Murray State are all excellent) while its teams do log some of March’s biggest wins (see: Morehead State over Louisville).

Belmont will find out early just how good it is, too. It opens at Duke and at Memphis.

The unknown: Deep rotations don’t always work. Chemistry issues can crop up, even with experienced teams with players who know their roles. Byrd made the switch before last season to outstanding results, but who’s to say the players will be OK with shuffling in and out for a second-straight season? (If the wins keep coming, I’m guessing they’ll be OK with it.)

And once the opening Duke-Memphis gauntlet is done, how do the Bruins react? Will blowouts hurt team morale? Do they start coasting against overmatched teams? Byrd’s experienced group shouldn’t have huge issues staying motivated, but we’ll see.

The Top 25 countdown

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