CRAWFORD | Elite in more ways than one: Bellarmine returns to Elite Eight
WDRB's Eric Crawford on the Bellarmine Knights' fourth NCAA regional title, and why they're a threat to keep going once they reach the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Sioux Falls, S.D.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If you wonder why Bellarmine University basketball holds such a special place among a group of serious basketball fans in the city of Louisville, think about Knights’ senior Rusty Troutman, just under a minute to play, his team up on the University of Findlay by 19 points and about to wrap up the school’s fourth-ever trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight Tuesday night in Knights Hall.
Troutman’s brother, Rhett, was approaching the scorer’s table to substitute for him. He was about to walk off the court for the final time about as victoriously as a player can do it -- after a 44th straight home-court win and 18th straight win this season.
He had scored 26 points in the 84-66 win, and in a few minutes would be named the Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional. After all that, after Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin presented the regional championship trophy, and after taking pictures with his family and half of Bullitt County, Troutman put on the headphones for a postgame interview with Bellarmine play-by-play man Doug Ormay, who asked him, “What was going through your mind there in that final minute?”
Listen to what Troutman said.
“Oh man,” he said. “I had a lot of different, mixed emotions. I was kind of sad. Then I was kind of happy. I just looked around this place. It’s my last game ever here. It gets me emotional. I’ve invested so much time. It’s just awesome. Goodness gracious. I’ve been here more than I’ve been at home.”
As high points go, this is a moment Troutman will savor forever. But in the moment, understand this, he was already sad about not playing in that building again.
That’s what you don’t always get with basketball at the next level. Don’t get me wrong. Troutman wants to win. You aren’t as competitive as he is without wanting it. Like all players. But he’s not just about winning.
He loves the game for the game. The sound of the crowd in the locker room before taking the court. The bus rides with the team. These guys, most of them, even love practice. The sound of the ball hitting the court when you're the first guy there. They love everything that happens in that building.
When you get that, when you are doing what you love, and you're part of a group of men (or women) who do, and you are able to do it at the level of the best in the nation, you’re at a special place.
“I always say, I’m the luckiest coach in America,” Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport said. “When you go to a classroom and you've got 14 students who can't wait to learn, well, as a teacher, you can't wait to teach. That's practice every day. That's film every day. They're all that's right in college athletics."
When you think about a kid whose first reaction is to be a little sad that he won’t get to play again before even celebrating that he’s moving on to try to win a national championship, you start to understand that.
Hardly a week goes by that Davenport doesn’t stop and remind his players to enjoy the process. It looks that like that message hit home.
The Knights took Findlay’s best shot early in Tuesday night’s regional final.
“They had 21 points at 14:34 in the first half,” Davenport said on his postgame radio show on WGTK 970 The Answer radio with Ormay and Mark Bugg, still sounding exasperated.
Findlay made 5 of 6 from three-point range during that early flurry. Here was its problem. Bellarmine was 3 for 3 from beyond the arc in the same span, and wound up making its first eight threes of the half. A late Findlay rally before half left it tied at the break, but the second half was all Bellarmine.
The Knights held Findlay to 10-32 shooting in the second half (31.3 percent) while making 14 of 23 of its own shots from the field (60.9 percent).
Bellarmine made 26 shots in the game. Only six weren’t the result of an assist. Findlay turned it over only nine times. In a picture of Bellarmine’s efficiency, the Knights turned those turnovers into 18 points.
Findlay tried to stop Bellarmine by shutting down its leading scorer, 6-8 forward Adam Eberhard. The sophomore from Evansville got only three shots in the game, though he made two of them. Didn’t matter. He still got four assists, nine rebounds, a block and a steal, made all four of his free throws.
Troutman’s scoring led the way. Point guard Al Davis added 21 points, and went 4-9 from three.
It’s team basketball. A couple of Bellarmine stats you might not know.
The Knights, coming into Tuesday night’s game, were the No. 3 offense in Division II against man-to-man defense, according to Synergy Sports, scoring on 48.7 percent of their possessions with an effective field goal percentage (when you figure in three pointers) of 59.7 percent.
They are the best team in Division II at end-zone out of bounds plays, scoring on 46.6 percent of those, with an effective field goal percentage of 64.2 percent.
Though they only run it 5.4 percent of the time, they have the best press offense in Division II, scoring out of it 58 percent of possessions they run it.
They’re fourth in the nation in assists, sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio, fourth in free-throw percentage (78.8 percent as a team), second in three-point field goal percentage (42.6 percent) and, as usual, they lead the nation in field goal percentage at 53.4 percent.
Out of timeouts, they score 46 percent of the time and shoot an effective field goal percentage of 59.7 -- that ranks 20th in Division II. A frame of reference. Louisville scores on 42 percent of its offensive sets out of a timeout. Kentucky on 41.7.
All of those things are the hallmarks of an extremely well-coached team. But the big difference this year, everyone will tell you, is Bellarmine’s defense.
They’ve ranked at or near the top of the national rankings in field goal percentage for years. This season, they’re seventh in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 64.7 points per game. They’re 26th in field-goal percentage defense and rank 30th overall in half-court defense, according to Synergy Sports.
This is a serious basketball team. You don’t need the numbers to know that. But they bear it out. They will go to Sioux Falls, S.D., site of next week’s Elite Eight, with a chance at the school’s second national championship.
But it’s something that runs between the numbers that’s the biggest reason for that. That assist number -- the culture of sharing, of passing, of playing the game a certain way, of creating a team -- that is Davenport’s yearly feat at Bellarmine. And it’s why the people who love the team and the program love it in a way that you might not be familiar with.
It’s tough not to.
The Knights expect to leave Louisville for South Dakota Monday night, though those plans might be altered by President Trump’s presence in Louisville for a rally that night.
Either way, they’ll get to South Dakota. And their aspirations are huge.
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