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VOL. 44 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 3, 2020

Patient Kunkel making his bid to lead Belmont squad

By Chip Cirillo

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Adam Kunkel, a 6-foot-3 guard from Hebron, Kentucky, is third in the Ohio Valley Conference in scoring with 18.1 points per game.

-- Belmont University Athletics/Sam Simpkins

Dylan Windler told Adam Kunkel to be patient, that his time would come. He was right.

Windler, a former Belmont star, is in his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Kunkel, a sophomore, led the nation in year-to-year scoring increase (+16.5 ppg) through Dec. 27.

“He just taught me to be patient and be ready when your name is called,” Kunkel says. “Just be ready to go in and make that play. Be ready to do what you do.”

Kunkel, a 6-foot-3 guard, ranks third in the Ohio Valley Conference with an 18.1 scoring average following Sunday’s 79-62 win at Western Kentucky. That’s a big improvement from last season when he averaged 2.3 points and 9.3 minutes per game as a freshman. His playing time has more than tripled to 28.7 minutes per game this season.

Casey Alexander, in his first season coaching at Belmont after coming over from Lipscomb, isn’t surprised by the improvement.

“He was a good player last year, he just didn’t get the opportunity,” Alexander says. “He was a heavily recruited player. I actually recruited him when I was at Lipscomb, and he had a lot of offers.”

Kunkel played behind Windler, a first-round draft pick, and Kevin McClain, a former Belmont guard who played with Golden State in the Las Vegas Summer League.

“(Adam) is a competitor and he plays with a lot of energy, which is contagious for his team,” Alexander adds. “He works really hard, so I’m not surprised to see him performing the way that he is.”

Kunkel can score in a variety of ways, making him difficult to guard.

“He can score in all three levels of the court,” explains Belmont point guard Grayson Murphy, a former Independence star.

Kunkel says he focused on trying to score midrange, getting to the rim and shooting from the outside during the offseason. “It’s definitely opened up my game a lot more,” Kunkel notes.

Kunkel leads the OVC with 3.3 3-pointers per game. His favorite spot to launch the 3?

“I’d say from the left wing is my favorite spot, for sure,” says Kunkel, who shoots 44% from beyond the arc. “Just being on that wing, running in transition, I feel like the point guard always passes it up to me and that’s usually where I’m at, left or right wing, either one.”

Kunkel has developed good chemistry with Murphy, a sophomore who averages 8.8 points, eight rebounds and an OVC-best 5.6 assists per game. “We both have that energy, that leadership, that dog in us,” Kunkel points out. “Having him at the point guard, pushing the ball, finding me in transition, it definitely helps. He’s a big asset.”

Kunkel’s favorite memory at Belmont so far is being a part of March Madness last season.

The Bruins beat Temple 81-70 in the play-in game for their first NCAA Tournament win in school history.

It was veteran coach Rick Byrd’s final win. The Bruins lost to Maryland 79-77 two days later.

“That team was a really special group and just being able to get that first win in Belmont history in the first round was unbelievable,” Kunkel says.

The transition of playing for Byrd and now Alexander has gone smoothly for Kunkel.

“I feel like with coach Byrd we just had a bunch of quick hitters,” Kunkel says. “With coach Casey, I feel like it’s more of a fluid offense, just getting the ball swung around.”

Alexander says Kunkel reminds Belmont fans of Craig Bradshaw, who scored 1,698 points for the Bruins between 2012-16.

“He doesn’t have the athleticism that Craig had, but his ability to put the ball in the basket and play with a little bit of an edge is very similar to the way Craig played,” Alexander says.

Kunkel has a great touch around the rim, he scores a lot off penetration to the basket and he can also play off the dribble to score off midrange, “a lost art these days,” Alexander adds.

“He’s a smart defender,” Alexander says. “I think that’s why he’s going to have a great career and not just be a guy that can score.”

Kunkel, Sean McNeil (now at West Virginia) and Dante Hendrix led Cooper High School (Hebron, Kentucky) to a runner-up finish behind Bowling Green at Rupp Arena in the Kentucky state tournament during Kunkel’s junior year.

“We were underdogs coming into the whole thing,” Kunkel recalls. “No one really expected us to go even one round, and we came in and shocked them, and went all the way to the championship. Sadly, we couldn’t get the job done, but it was a blessing being able to make it that far.”

Bowling Green’s Zion Harmon and Terry Taylor, who now plays for Austin Peay, hurt Cooper with the pick and roll. Taylor leads the OVC in scoring (23.5) and rebounding (8.8).

Kentucky is one of the only states in which all teams compete in one bracket, regardless of enrollment size.

“I’ll say it to this day, Kentucky has got the best state championship in high school around,” Kunkel continues. “One team is the winner. It’s not divisions or anything. The best team in Kentucky comes out on top.”

A 2018 Kentucky Mr. Basketball finalist, Kunkel is Cooper’s career scoring leader.

“Adam was just a joy to coach,” Cooper coach Tim Sullivan says. “He’s one of those kids that when you asked him to do something, he’s going to try to do it. He’s going to pour his heart and soul into it.”

Sullivan describes him as an unselfish player who exuded positivity.

“Something that I’ll never forget, Adam, in our practice before senior night, and I know his mom wasn’t too happy with me, Adam had a little struggle getting to practice,” Sullivan recalls. “It was unfortunate and wasn’t really anything that he did, but he was late to practice.”

Kunkel didn’t start for senior night, but came off the bench to score 27 points.

“Never once did he pout, he accepted it,” Sullivan says. “The way he handled that night, he never got selfish or mad. That’s just the type of kid he was. It was a negative, but it was a positive. Again, so selfless.”

Kunkel’s dad played offensive tackle at Kentucky, and his oldest brother was a defensive end at Lindsey Wilson.

Kunkel likes to play sand volleyball as a hobby.

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