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Ashway: Bellarmine deserves its shot
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

You’d think by now we’d all be numb, unable to muster any more emotion when confronted with the latest travesty administered by the NCAA.

But, no. Conditioned as we are to expect the worst from The Power That Is, we regularly get one more punch in the gut that compels indignation. One more example of inherent unfairness.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Bellarmine Knights men’s basketball team.

They caught my eye last Tuesday during the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. The A-Sun is one of the many “one-bid” conferences that make championship week such compelling fare. It’s win or pack it in. The intensity and excitement rival the Tournament itself.

In this contest, Bellarmine didn’t disappoint. Dylan Penn, Juston Betz, and Curt Hopf hit consecutive 3-pointers as the Knights jumped ahead, 9-4. Ten minutes in, they led 28-10. They had made 10 of 14 shots, including seven treys.

“Geez, who are these guys?” I wondered aloud. Turns out Bellarmine is a private Catholic university located in Louisville, Ky. Bellarmine opened in 1950, and reported an enrollment of 2,481 for the 2018-19 academic year.

It also turns out that Bellarmine just moved up to Division I two years ago. And here’s where the NCAA, in its finite wisdom, comes into play. One of its most archaic rules is that any school moving up to Division I must play for four years before it is eligible to contend for any championship.

Here’s the NCAA’s rationale, from a 2011 statement: “The resulting structure will ensure that reclassifying members are committed to the Division I philosophy and operating principles. In addition, this legislation will increase the likelihood that such institutions will operate successful, competitive programs at the Division I level.”

College basketball’s “operating principles” are so well defined that they have evoked the scrutiny of the FBI in a still unraveling saga. And we needn’t look beyond Louisville itself to find a Division I school that operates sans principles.

Competitive? I’d take Bellarmine against Georgia and lay eight points right now!

So, sadly, it didn’t matter that Bellarmine beat Jacksonville, 77-72, to win the tournament. Or that they shot 12-of-25 from 3-point range, and made 15-of-17 free throws, including 11-of-12 in the final two minutes.

The Knights can’t be part of March Madness.

“We deserved to hear our name on Selection Sunday,” senior guard CJ Fleming told WDRB.com. “To be a 16-seed, whatever, we don’t care. Not only that, but we put in the work that all the other teams have. Maybe even more … we deserve to hear our name, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

“We’ve made it a point to control what we can control,” Betz told WDRB.com. “And that’s it. And as exciting as Selection Sunday is, and as exciting as it would be to see our names up on the screen, which we deserve, we’re going to control whatever comes next.

“Whether that’d be practice later this week, or film, or anything like that, we’re going to do it together. And we’re going to have the right attitude about how we approach things.

“That’s the reason that we’re here today, is just being in the moment. Never taking for granted where we are. And as badly as we would love to be able to have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, we’re just going to enjoy and take in the last moments that we have together as a team.”

Wow. Can these quotes be read in April, when the NCAA votes on shortening the transition period?

Bellarmine certainly took its move to Division I seriously. For game one as a Division I school, they took the court on Dec. 4, 2020 at Cameron Indoor Stadium against Duke. The Knights lost, 76-54, but they were only down three with 1:29 left in the first half before Duke went on a 7-0 run.

It came as no surprise that the Knights can play. They reached the Division II Tournament in 2020 after shooting 40% from behind the arc on the season. In the previous decade, four times they reached the Division II Final Four.

Still, they weren’t quite ready for their fans to storm the court after Tuesday’s championship win. “I looked back at the bench,” Fleming told The New York Times, “And saw all them coming. I turned around and we were just getting swarmed. Such an awesome feeling!”

“Its kind of surreal,” Penn, the tournament MVP, told ESPN.com. “It feels like we’re in a movie. We weren’t supposed to be competing at such a high level this early.”

Coach Scotty Davenport captured the essence of sport when he told ESPN.com, “I don’t know how any coach at any level of any sport could be more proud than I am. My highlight of this journey is seeing this team celebrate each other. That locker room was one of the highlights of my life.”

Somebody tell the NCAA.