The new NCAA athletic year begins on July 1st every year. While this date means nothing to most, it is a huge day for schools that move divisions in college basketball. This year, four schools are making the transition from Division II to Division I. Over the next month, LWOS will take a look at each one. First up are the Bellarmine Knights from Louisville, Kentucky, joining the Atlantic Sun.
Bellarmine Knights, Welcome to Division I
Bellarmine has had basketball ever since the school’s inception in 1950. The program made its first Division II tournament appearance in 1963. A majority of the basketball program’s success has come within the past decade. The Knights made 20 Division II tournament appearances, including 11 straight before their official move to the highest level.
The Knights appeared in four Division II Final Fours. They reached that level’s pinnacle by capturing the 2011 National Championship, the first national title of any kind for the school. Bellarmine went 33-2 that season, which included a 16-game winning streak at one point. During their tournament run, they ended up defeating Northern Kentucky, who transitioned to Division I a few years later.
Scott Davenport is the man who is responsible for Bellarmine’s success. He is 364-109 in his time at the school, easily supplanting himself as the coach with the most wins in program history. Prior to coaching the Knights, he learned from some of the best at Louisville, being a part of the staff for Denny Crum and Rick Pitino. Since 2009-10, he has won no less than 20 games per season, with three seasons of at least 30 wins.
The Knights are coming off a 20-8 season this past year. They had earned an at-large bid as a five seed in the Midwest Regional of the Division II Tournament, which was cancelled due to COVID-19. All of their losses came against conference foes, either during the regular season or in the conference tournament. However, the Great Lakes Valley Conference is one of the best at the DII level. It has produced three current Division I teams in Purdue-Fort Wayne, Northern Kentucky, and SIU-Edwardsville prior to Bellarmine’s transition. As a league member, the Knights won seven regular-season titles and five tournament titles.
The Bellarmine Knights are 127-179 all-time against current Division I teams. However, most of those match-ups came against these teams when they were also in Division II. They played two exhibition games against Notre Dame and Louisville before the start of last season, losing by ten each time. While exhibition games are not the greatest measuring stick, it does show that they can be competitive against top-level programs.
Bellarmine should fit into the Atlantic Sun well. They are the second recent school to join the league from DII, as North Alabama moved up two years ago. The Knights should be competitive right away, though pulling off a Merrimack-like run to a league title in year one could be a stretch. However, if taken lightly, they could shock a team or two on the non-conference schedule. It would not be surprising to see Davenport’s team capture a regular-season title during the four-year transition period. It is even more likely that they will play in multiple CIT or CBI tournaments before being eligible for NCAA-sponsored postseason tournaments in 2024-25.