By David Boclair
Most would agree that the men’s basketball rivalry between Belmont and Lipscomb is not what it once was.
When the programs left the NAIA for NCAA Division I competition in the late 1990s, they no longer sized up one another in the national rankings. When Belmont moved the Ohio Valley Conference in 2012 while Lipscomb remained in the Atlantic Sun, conference championships no longer were at stake.
It is likely nothing — make that no one — that did more to reshape the Battle of the Boulevard than Casey Alexander, who was formally introduced as Belmont’s new head coach Thursday morning. The former Bruins’ point guard and assistant coach, of course, spent the past six seasons as head coach at Lipscomb.
“When I was hired there, that was a much bigger adjustment, I think, for people than now being hired here,” Alexander said. “This one makes a lot of sense to everybody. That was more of a scratch-your-head move when [Lipscomb AD] Philip Hutcheson went out on a limb and gave me a chance.
“… They welcomed me, and I could not have had a better experience there from start to finish.”
The chance Lipscomb took in hiring a Belmont guy to lead its program paid off with 113 wins in six seasons, including an NCAA-era record 29 this season and three straight seasons with at least 20, the Bisons’ first NCAA Tournament appearance (2018) and a run all the way to the NIT championship game (2019).
By all accounts the transition was handled professionally and graciously on both sides.
“I didn’t talk to him until his season was over and I got permission to talk to him from (Hutcheson),” Belmont athletics director Scott Corley said. “… Take all the Belmont stuff out of it — we just hired a great coach, one of the best ones in the country. It’s just a blessing that he happens to be a Belmont alum.”
After the past six seasons though, Alexander also has real and meaningful connections within the Lipscomb community. As such, his presence on the Belmont sideline should engender a different type of respect than was the case with Byrd. And the fact Lipscomb gave Alexander the opportunity to flourish professionally and then did not block his return ought to have an impact on the Belmont community.
“Because I’ve lived in both worlds, really they’re a lot more similar than they are different,” Alexander said.
His time with the Bisons certainly bridged a lot of the differences between the programs, stylistically and competitively.
Because he played under Byrd for four seasons (1991-95) and served as an assistant on his staff for another 16 (1995-2010), Alexander incorporates many of the same offensive and defensive philosophies as his mentor. That should make the transition easy for the returning Belmont players, a group that includes three starters from this season’s team.
More importantly, he raised the level of Lipscomb’s play to one comparable to Belmont’s. In the last three years, four of the six meetings were decided by four points or fewer. Before that, the Bruins had won nine straight by an average of 19.8 points, including two by 30 or more.
“I think the rivalry has gotten better because both teams have gotten better and winning that game means a lot for each program because both teams are so good,” Corley said. “You look at us with the at-large [NCAA Tournament invitation] this year, I think those two wins against Lipscomb were crucial.”
Friendlier? Almost certainly. And there is one person at the center of it all.“I think there have been a lot of things that have changed it over the years anyway,” Alexander said. “Not being in the same league has affected the rivalry a little bit. Playing the games in November and December has affected the rivalry a little bit. Belmont has had the upper hand for the better part of six-eight years now and so that has affected the rivalry a little bit.
“Yeah, maybe the blood-thirsty part of the rivalry will be a little bit less but I hope it will continue to be really important to both schools. I assume it will be.”