TERRE HAUTE —
If someone were to predict before last weekend that Rose-Hulman would capture its second straight Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship in men’s basketball and that senior Brenton Balsbaugh would be named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, fans probably would believe the first statement but consider the second as wishful thinking.
Don’t misunderstand. A 6-foot-6, 220-pound starting forward from Greenville, Ohio, Balsbaugh has been a solid contributor to the Engineers’ 24-3 campaign, which will continue Saturday with an NCAA Division III tournament first-round matchup against Calvin College at 7 p.m. in Hulbert Arena.
But prior to Friday’s 81-59 thumping of Defiance and Saturday’s 64-59 victory over Hanover, also in Hulbert Arena, Balsbaugh was the fifth-leading scorer on the squad through 25 games.
Against Defiance, however, Balsbaugh tallied a season-high 17 points — one less than teammate Julian Strickland’s total of 18 — with the help of 7-for-10 marksmanship from the field.
Then against Hanover for the HCAC title, Balsbaugh again fired in 17 points — this time a team high — and converted 7 of 9 field-goal attempts while blocking three shots on the defensive end.
Balsbaugh, who’s still Rose-Hulman’s fifth-leading scorer with an average of 7.4 points per outing, admits he was surprised when tourney officials handed him the MVP plaque afterward.
“Julian and Austin [Weatherford], last year and this year, have been more recognized players,” he told the Tribune-Star after practice Wednesday. “So it did come kind of as a surprise. … I was pretty shocked.”
Also somewhat surprised, Rose coach Jim Shaw said he was glad to see Balsbaugh receive the award.
“We worked really hard on some adjustments in the last few weeks because when Brenton was on the perimeter, [opposing] people weren’t guarding him,” the veteran coach explained.
“To Brenton’s credit, he really internalized and executed those adjustments to make him a dangerous offensive player when people were sagging off him and playing center field. That’s one of the major reasons that he had some success — his ability to make that adjustment that we worked on with him. He also finished really well, he blocked some shots, he rebounded and defended and he was just solid overall.”
“I just tried to play hard,” Balsbaugh added modestly. “My teammates were getting me the ball in open places. I just had to finish and play well.”
Balsbaugh’s late rise to stardom shouldn’t be too big of a surprise, considering his journey to Rose-Hulman got a later start than most of his teammates.
“I went to a private school [through the eighth grade] and we didn’t have sports,” recalled Balsbaugh, who grew up with a German Baptist religious background. “Then I got into AAU ball a little bit [in the summer], so I decided to go to Arcanum [High School]. … I didn’t really know a lot about [basketball]. I hadn’t watched a lot, actually.”
One reason he hadn’t seen much basketball was that German Baptists typically don’t own televisions.
“I was a little shaky,” Balsbaugh said of his first couple years on the court. “I just tried to rebound and block shots.”
But he managed to develop his skills over time.
“He was pretty good,” Shaw said of the times he saw Balsbaugh play in high school. “He was definitely raw. In some ways, he still is. But he was the best player on his high school team. His high school had enjoyed the most success it ever had. … He was a very good high school player and a really good small-college recruit. At that point in his career, he relied on raw athletic ability because he’s long, athletic and fairly rugged.”
“I’ve been lucky to have good coaches in high school and here,” Balsbaugh pointed out. “I probably became good here [at Rose-Hulman], after I got to play with people who were better than me and go up against people who were better than me.”
There was another factor besides basketball that lured him to Terre Haute’s east side.
“I knew I wanted to do civil engineering,” Balsbaugh mentioned. “As I started to look at schools, this became the only place I could play basketball and do civil engineering.”
“We found out about him through a former Rose-Hulman player and volunteer assistant student coach [Brad O’Dell],” Shaw noted. “At the time, Brenton was dating Brad’s sister. So Brenton made some visits over here to visit Brad … and Brad’s dad was one of Brenton’s high school coaches. I knew Brad’s dad well, so the [O’Dell] family introduced Brenton to Rose-Hulman and introduced us to Brenton. … The recruiting relationship grew from there and this is the choice he ended up making.”
And that choice is paying dividends for the Engineeers’ basketball program.
“Honestly, he continues to progress,” Shaw said of Balsbaugh. “Now his progression shows in more subtle ways, such as his ability to communicate and focus in on a particular job and make adjustments on the fly. Those are all things that come with experience.
“He’s learned how to play inside, he’s a decent mid-range player and he’s been a really good defensive player inside — protecting the basket and guarding his own man all year.”
If Balsbaugh keeps forcing his presence into the Rose spotlight with guards Strickland (named this week as the HCAC’s Player of the Year) and Weatherford, Shaw hopes that could lead to an extended NCAA tourney run.
“Everybody knows that we’re built around our perimeter guys,” Shaw explained. “When we get that inside play [from Balsbaugh and others], we’re a lot more difficult to handle.”