At this time last year, Belmont Abbey was picked to finish last in Conference Carolinas basketball.
But the Crusaders proved the prognosticators wrong with a vengeance, going 16-12 overall and 14-6 in the conference, tying for third place with two other teams.
Now Belmont Abbey will attempt to show that it belongs near the top. The Crusaders return 77 percent of their scoring from last year and were picked fourth in the conference preseason poll.
The poll is “a credit to the returning players,” said head basketball coach Stephen Miss, “but we have not addressed the poll at all. In the grand scheme of things, it really means little, as last year proved.”
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Four starters return for the Crusaders, including all-conference performers Richard Barbee and Jonathan Jackson. Both guards averaged just under 17 points per game last season. The 6-foot-4-inch Barbee was the conference's freshman of the year and earned second-team honors, while the 6-foot-1 Jackson, now a senior, was named honorable mention.
At 6 feet 8 inches, forward Chad Patus started 27 games last season and averaged nearly 10 points and seven rebounds and is the Crusaders' most experienced inside player.
The player who makes things go is point guard Deonte Murphy. Listed at 5 feet 10, the senior from Cleveland, Ohio, led Conference Carolinas last season in assists and steals.
“Deonte is one of the finest players in our conference,” Miss said. “He could easily average 16 to 18 points per game but that's not what we ask him to do. He has a high basketball IQ and is without question our floor general.”
One area where Belmont Abbey had some trouble last year was rebounding, and Miss addressed that in recruiting. Of the four newcomers on this year's squad, none is shorter than 6 feet 5 inches. Highlighting the group is 7-foot-1 Division I transfer Alex Pledger.
The New Zealand native played two seasons at Missouri-Kansas City, and led his team in blocks as a freshman. He also played for New Zealand's national team in the Olympic qualifying tournament.
“Alex is different than people usually see at this level,” Miss said. “His upside is really high, plus he can change and impact the game more than anyone by his mere presence on the floor.”
The Crusaders will have a tough nonconference schedule, as three of their seven nonconference opponents went to the NCAA Division II tournament last year. In the conference, Mount Olive and Queens both earned tournament births in 2007-08, and Barton is just a year removed from winning the Division II national championship.
“Our ultimate goal is competitive greatness, meeting and overcoming difficult challenges,” Miss said. “We like to think we can compete with anyone, and hopefully these will be some of the same types of teams we could see in the postseason.”