by Conor GeregFollow @CTGereg
Last year College Hoops Digest profiled Division I’s four newest programs in a series titled, New Programs on the Block. We caught up with this quartet to find out what life was like in Year 1.
Today we check in with Dixie State (UT) and Bellarmine (KY), a pair of programs from vastly different leagues and programs that met uniquely different challenges during the 2020-2021 season.
In the next installment: Tarleton State (TX) of the WAC and UC San Diego of the Big West.
W-L: 8-13 (4-10 in the WAC)
NET Rank: 314
KenPom Rank: 328
Haslam Metric Rank: 315
Torvik Rank: 314
Dixie State’s addition to the Western Athletic Conference comes as a prelude to the seismic remodeling that’s afoot within the league’s office. DSU was a key addition to a league that will welcome a handful of new programs to a conference that’s looking to build its brand on football. Marked by the incoming additions of Stephen F. Austin, Lamar, Sam Houston State, and Abilene Christian, the WAC will refocus its geographic center toward Texas. All four of these schools are officially set to join on July 1st.
Leveling up in competition is only a small part of the transitional headache dealt to the nation’s newest schools. Compound the learning curve with competing amid a pandemic and it’s enough to create headaches for even the most seasoned staff. “Going Division I and [doing it] during a COVID year there was just so much more to do”, said Jake Schroeder, a DSU assistant. “Our struggle was how and where do we spend our time, obviously we spend as much time on the player and team development and doing the things to help us win games, but who is doing laundry? Who is planning our travel (flights, hotels, meals)? The amount of staff it takes to function was something that we underestimated.”
Despite competing in a year filled with complications, DSU was the only team to play every game on their WAC schedule. A full season gave the Trailblazers time to see an immediate difference between the league’s newest programs and those who had navigated the rigors of a full season previously. “Depth is probably the biggest difference we saw. We were good enough to compete with everyone, but attrition definitely occurred”, said Andrew May, the team’s recruiting coordinator, and assistant coach. “It was apparent that the best teams could overcome that attrition. Probably similar to what you see in Power 5 teams to regular FBS teams. FBS can play with Power 5 teams and have success, but sustained success would require the greater depth.”
Earning a handful of league wins is a respectable starting benchmark for a program that’s accustomed to success, albeit at the Division II level in the Rocky Mountain Conference. “Besides the obvious factors of size, speed, athleticism, and talent level, I truly felt similar to Division II but everything was just more focused and everything is on such a larger scale,” Schroeder said. It will take time for the program to fill its roster with players to match the school’s lofty athletic aspirations but for the Trailblazers, there’s plenty of reason for hope in a league with proud aspirations.
DSU’s addition is part of an even greater picture for the WAC, a conference with its sights on being a perennial factor every March. “We feel like our league could get to the point of being a multi-bid league to the NCAA Tournament,” May said. “We are excited about the increased competitiveness of our league.”
W-L: 14-8 (10-3 in the Atlantic Sun)
NET Rank: 172
KenPom Rank: 167
Haslam Metric Rank: 152
Torvik Rank: 165
The most successful of the nation’s newest programs was none other than the Bellarmine Knights. While Bellarmine’s Division II dominance didn’t instantly translate to Division I, the Knights finished second in the Atlantic Sun in 2020-2021. The league and its step-up in talent was an immediate shift for the Knights of Louisville.
“Our margin for errors was drastically smaller compared to a year ago,” said Al Davis, a Bellarmine assistant who witnessed these differences from the opening tip. “All the critical things such as a missed block out, defensive rebound to finish a possession, closing out with dead hands to a shooter to give up a three, or not putting a pass on target (in the shot pocket) to knock down an open shot, all of those were much more important especially in critical moments in games.”
Finishing just a game behind first-place Liberty, Bellarmine is right at home atop the league standings. Prior to the transition to D1 competition, Bellarmine had enjoyed 12 consecutive seasons for 20+ wins. A vital component to their success: recruiting players that fit their style and culture. There’s clearly a recipe for success within their system, a formula that isn’t likely to change. “I think what we do well here at Bellarmine is we never sacrifice talent for character,” Davis said. “In Coach Davenport’s 16 years of coaching at Bellarmine, he has never done that, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
There is truth to the mantra that Bellarmine has a certain profile for recruits and despite the doors that are opened as a D1 team, there’s no compromising for “fit”. “We might sacrifice a few things as far as height/athleticism in order to take the right kind of player,” said assistant Scooter Galloway.
Few programs could have scripted a more emphatic entrance to college basketball’s highest ranks and considering the Bellarmine blueprint, there’s reason to expect more to come.