by Conor GeregFollow @CTGereg
With 4 Final-Four appearances in the last decade, the Bellarmine Knights are ready for the next challenge. This season will mark Bellarmine’s first as a Division I school, joining the Atlantic Sun this fall.
Bellarmine will replace NJIT who left for the America East, a move that makes geographic sense and provides a competition boost for the northeastern school. In their vacated spot will slide Bellarmine, the 2011 Division II national champ, and the Louisville-based university of just under 4,000 will be added to a league that’s top-heavy with already established programs.
An Uphill Climb
The Atlantic Sun, rated as the 26th of 32 Division I conferences in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), is headlined by Liberty, whose 67th overall finish in the NET and 28-4 record make the Flames the class of the league. Beyond Liberty there’s a bevy of well-established basketball brands that Bellarmine will try to overtake, programs like North Florida (19-12 overall, 175th in the NET) and Florida Gulf Coast. FGCU might have struggled last year (10-22; 7-9 in the ASUN) but the program is a name-brand that enjoyed more than just a flash in the pan during their 2013 Sweet 16 run. Even after the “Dunk City” era, the program has continued its winning ways, hanging three conference championship banners after 2013’s magical NCAA tournament appearance which included wins over Georgetown and San Diego State.
With the addition of Bellarmine the ASUN can expand its membership footprint north into basketball-crazed Kentucky, establishing a presence in six states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Knights are long accustomed to trips north and west while playing as a Division II program, squaring off against competition in the Great Lakes Valley Conference so the ASUN transition might take some getting used to.
Been Here Before—kind of
Playing at the Division I level isn’t entirely novel for the Knights who often play preseason exhibitions against local high majors prior to each season’s official tip. This practice is of course common for most DII programs that operate in the shadows of Division I powers. These games are a low stakes tune-up for high majors and a chance at a modest pay day for smaller, lesser profile schools who also enjoy the occasional exposure when they take on the big boys. In fact, just last year Bellarmine squared off against both Louisville and Notre Dame, keeping both games close, losing the pair of games by ten points in each contest. 20-8 last season prior to the cancellation of the DII tournament, Bellarmine was once again a tournament-caliber team, set to match up against Michigan Tech, marking the 11th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for the school.
Success is the norm for this program having amassed a collection of deep tournament runs within the last ten years. This level of continuity is largely due to a talent pipeline the Knights have cultivated from the mid-west. Among this group is returning junior Dylan Penn of Evansville, Indiana. Penn, a 6’3” combo guard, will be asked to carry the offensive reins following the graduation of do-it-all senior forward, Alex Cook. Penn lead the team in minutes per game and assists which gives the program a building block upon arrival in the Atlantic Sun. Penn will have some help in navigating opposing backcourts as rising senior C.J. Fleming adds a long-range shooting threat that will keep defenses honest, knocking down a team-high 54 three-pointers. Fleming can be productive off the ball as a scorer but he’ll also be relied on as a distributor (2.0 APG in conference play).
There will major roles to fill once this current group of upperclassmen move on but this transition won’t phase a program that’s accustomed to attracting talent.
“Our players are our best recruiters. That is how Coach Davenport has done it since he has been the head coach here at Bellarmine and that is where we have found the most success,” Assistant Coach Al Davis told College Hoops Digest. “With the jump to Division I, our staff’s approach to recruiting has not changed much. Yes, talent wise, we will look to recruit student athletes who are slightly bigger, faster, and stronger, but ultimately the way we do things does not change.”
A Steady Hand amidst Uncharted Waters
Head Coach Doug Davenport will enter his 16th season in Louisville and he’ll bring a gaudy .770 winning percentage with him to college basketball’s highest ranks. Davenport has worked under and alongside some of the game’s best, serving as an assistant at University of Louisville to both Denny Crum and Rick Pitino while also learning the ropes at VCU working adjacent to then fellow assistant Tubby Smith. Davenport has dominated the Great Lakes Valley Conference (192-65) and there’s little doubt that he’ll help Bellarmine reach new heights in the school’s next chapter.
Could there any built-in rivalries awaiting the Knights in this new league? “Our players are excited to be able to play the game they love together regardless of who they go against,” said Al Davis. “Especially with so much uncertainty and the pandemic, I think we all will be excited to play basketball against any opponent, when that time comes.”
For the Knights and their coaching staff, that time is now. The Atlantic Sun and its collection of southern-based schools opens new recruiting doors. Typically accustomed to scouring the mid-west for players, Davenport can pull players from new corners of the country. The veteran Head Coach will have his hands full against a league that, despite some minor changes in membership of late, remains mostly steadily configured:
Florida Gulf Coast
While it may take time for the Knights to ascend this group, Davenport can now sell recruits on the recently secured ESPN+ contract which ensures that games are broadcast nationally. A coast to coast audience and an annual opportunity at the NCAA tournament? That’s a no-brainer for the school and its athletics program.
Shortly after the transition to Division I was announced, Athletic Director Scott Wiegandt said, “While our facilities generally meet DI standards, we’re planning some upgrades that will enhance the experience for our student-athletes, our opponents and our fans. The improved reach offered through ASUN and ESPN will shine a brighter spotlight on Bellarmine, drawing more regional and national attention.”
With that assessment Wiegandt is 100% correct: the winning combination of a national audience paired with a more challenging weight class makes Bellarmine a program that’s on the rise.