LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's easy to forget that Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport lost two All-Americans and three players who started every game they played from last season's NCAA Final Four team.
Four of the Knights' top eight scorers this season were not with the program last season.
But here's the important thing to note about the Knights: Bellarmine is still Bellarmine. Braydon Hobbs, Jeremy Kendle and Luke Sprague are gone, but the Knights still play with the same unselfishness, the same constant motion and passing on offense, the same ability to whip the ball around to each other until they find an open shot, then pass the ball one more time for an even better open shot.
"They become us, we don't become them, and that's a wonderful thing and you know how unusual that is today," Davenport said. "We are fortunate that guys watch us play and the come in here wanting to play Bellarmine basketball. They're excited to play the way we play."
Understand, Bellarmine (19-5) is not ranked in the Top 5 in the nation the way it has been the past two years. But it's still a national threat. On Thursday night, the No. 15 Knights avenged a Great Lakes Valley Conference loss to No. 16 Southern Indiana 73-62 in Knights Hall, solidifying their ranking at No. 2 in the Great Lakes Region heading into a Saturday showdown at rival Kentucky Wesleyan.
This year has been more of a battle for the Knights, who have been undisputed kings of the GLVC the past two seasons. There were back-to-back losses to Missouri-St. Louis and Maryville in January. There was a 62-49 loss at USI on Jan. 31 that was the lowest point total for a Bellarmine team in two years. The Knights even suffered a home-court loss to Indianapolis, 64-62, on Feb. 7. Still, they've beaten nationally ranked opponents home and away, and have found a way to win despite not having a traditional post-up game.
They don't lead the nation in field-goal shooting, but they're still at 50.4 percent as a team. They shoot 77 percent from the free-throw line and have made nearly as many free throws as their opponents have attempted. And they still have great balance, with four players averaging in double figures.
Against USI, Bellarmine was highly overmatched on the interior. Screaming Eagles' big man Keith DeWitt had nine offensive rebounds by himself, and of USI's 36 missed shots, the Screaming Eagles rebounded 19 of them. But Bellarmine countered with great offensive spacing, sometimes emptying out the lane entirely, pulling the USI big men away from the baskets for drives and dishes inside and out. Jelani Johnson, a senior from Aurora, Ill., found plenty of gaps for a career-high 16 points to lead four players in double digits. The Knights even overcame their coach being seriously enough sick with a stomach bug that managers had to unlock the nearby women's locker room in case he needed to dash from the bench suddenly
But Bellarmine was still Bellarmine.
At Bellarmine, a screen is a serious thing, not something to be set perfunctorily before rolling to the basket. Screens are set, and they're used. Players cut hard, they sprint to open spaces, they look for and find each other. When the offense is clicking, no player holds the ball for more than a couple of seconds.
The Knights are shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range, just one point lower than a season ago, and though they're off last season's assist rate (19 per game) by just a bit (15.7) per game, it's understandable when you lose two All-American guards.
When practice began this season, senior guard Chris Dowe felt like he needed a game program to tell who was who.
"There were a lot of new faces," he said. "But guys were great. They were excited about playing the way we play and everybody came in with a great work ethic and we just got after it."
This edition of the Knights is smaller, but it's also quicker and more athletic. Vance Hall, a 6-3 junior transfer from Wright State, fit into the program seamlessly and is leading the team in scoring at 15.8 points per game.
"Vance would call after seeing us play and say, 'I can't wait to get there,'" Davenport said. "What we've been able to do is go out and get guys who want to play the way we play. And you know how rare that is in this AAU day and age. So many players are about 'me' and their own game. We've been fortunate to get guys who want to play a team game, and I'm fortunate that I get to come in and coach them every day."
But it's Dowe that makes this team go. He averages 14.1 points per game and leads the team in rebounds (5.4 per game) and assists (4.7 per game).
"I needed to work on being more vocal," said Dowe, a Louisville Eastern product who ranks in Bellarmine's top 10 all-time in scoring, steals and assists. "We've always had a lot of veteran guys, then I looked around this year and realized, I'm the veteran guy."
Bellarmine has one more home game remaining in the regular-season, against McKendree next Thursday night. The Knights still have a chance, with a big finish, to earn a No. 1 regional ranking and the right to host the Great Lakes Regional. But whether they do or not, there's plenty of incentive to try to get back to the Elite Eight.
The first two games of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight will be played in Freedom Hall, with the national title game in Atlanta, where the NCAA is holding championship games for all three men's divisions this year.
This Bellarmine team isn't the prohibitive favorite to make the Elite Eight like it has the past two years. It is playing with some new guys in key places.
But as the team has been demonstrating all season -- Bellarmine is still Bellarmine.