The bond between Rick Byrd and Casey Alexander crosses rivalry lines

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There may not be a rivalry in all of college basketball more unique than the Battle of the Boulevard, which pits Belmont against Lipscomb, two schools that are located all of 2.7 miles apart on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, TN.

It dates back to 1953, and over the course of the last 60 years, the two programs have squared off more than 130 times despite the fact that there was a seven-year hiatus in the late-’90s and early-’00s. But to get an idea of just what this rivalry means to Bruin and Bison fans, all you need to know is the story of their matchup on Feb. 17th, 1990.

At the time, Lipscomb was a powerhouse in the NAIA, winning national titles and helping Don Meyer collect 665 of his 923 career wins. In 1989, they were 38-1 heading into the league tournament when an upstart Belmont program, coached by Rick Byrd, upset the Bisons and kept them out of the NAIA national tournament. The following season, with both programs sitting in the top five of the NAIA rankings with a combined record of 27-1, Belmont was asked to move their home game to Memorial Gym on Vanderbilt’s campus because of the demand for tickets.

15,399 fans packed inside Memorial Gym. More than 16,000 tickets were sold. The fire marshall shut the doors, banning ticket holders from entering.

All for a regular season NAIA game.

That attendance number is still a record.

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Casey Alexander was at that game at Memorial Gym. He was a senior in high school, and one of his teammates was already committed to Belmont. They had a game that night, but hopped in a car immediately after the buzzer sounds — still in their uniforms — and caught the final seven minutes of the 124-107 Lipscomb win.

Alexander would eventually commit to Belmont as well. He played for four years, lettering in each season, before becoming a member of Byrd’s staff upon graduation. He became the associate head coach in 2002 and had completed a full two decades as a member of the Belmont program before taking over as head coach at Stetson prior to the 2011-2012 season.

He’s a member of the Belmont Hall of Fame, and even played a pivotal role in what ended up being the most important move as a basketball program.

“Casey played a large role in our move from the NAIA to Division I,” Byrd said by phone on Sunday afternoon, “I’ve said it often that he pulled me and pushed me into that era. We had a good thing, and I was pretty happy coaching from October to March and getting to play golf in the summer. You can’t do that as easily in Division I.”

Outside of Byrd, there is no one that is more Belmont more than Alexander.

So you can imagine the reaction on Sunday when Alexander was officially named the new head coach at Lipscomb.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “That’s the way that I feel and the way that I’m approaching this mission.”

“He contacted me very early on about the job and said he was interested,” Philip Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s athletic director and a former all-american for the Bisons, said with a laugh. “I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t know’ as I was thinking about his resume a little bit. I thought this’ll be interesting.”

Steve Wojciechowski played for four seasons at Duke, winning ACC titles and earning accolades like Honorable Mention All-America and National Defensive Player of the Year, before joining the Duke staff two years after graduating. Since then, he’s become the associate head coach, been on staff for two runs to the national title and emerged as a contender to replace Mike Krzyzewski if and when he finally decides to retire.

Now imagine if Wojo was named Roy Williams’ replacement as head coach at North Carolina.

For the folks around Belmont and Lipscomb, that’s the kind of surprise that this hire has elicited.

“[They] were very similar players,” Byrd said. “Casey was an NAIA player, he couldn’t have done at Duke what Wojciechowski did, but their roles as leaders and tough little guards were very, very similar.”

“I’m sure Casey was pretty easy to dislike from the Lipscomb point of view.”

What would college-aged Casey have said had you told him he’d be coaching Lipscomb in 2013?

“I think he would have been as much in shock as most people were when they heard he’s going to be now. It’s just unusual,” Byrd said with a laugh.

And that’s what makes this rivalry so unique. Lipscomb may have hesitated in hiring Alexander — their coaching search went on for 40 days — but they ended up bringing in a guy that was probably the best fit for their program.

It’s inarguable that the Bruins have overshadowed the Bisons in recent years. They’ve been to six NCAA tournaments in the past eight seasons. They won the Atlantic Sun regular season title in five of their last seven years in the league (finishing second the other two) before getting an invitation to the stronger Ohio Valley Conference prior to last season. The Bruins won the OVC last year as well.

Lipscomb? Well, they made the 2006 NIT and lost in the first round.

No one knows the ins-and-outs of Belmont’s blueprint for success like Alexander. In a city where sports are secondary to music and food, college basketball isn’t the most important sport, and there are already two nationally relevant college hoops teams, a mid-major program like Lipscomb needs to think outside the box when making a hire.

That’s precisely what they did.

If you can’t beat ’em and you can’t join ’em, you might as well try to replicate ’em. And in all actuality, the similarity between the two programs is one of the things that attracted Alexander to the job.

“The truth is all that I liked about Belmont is the reason that I wanted to be at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “They’re very similar. I think we can do the same things. I think I can be myself, I can coach the way that I want and I can coach the kind of people that I want. There aren’t that many places that are like that. It’s a pretty unique environment and it’s the one that I wanted to be in.”

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When Alexander stepped to the podium at his introductory press conference, the first people he recognized and thanked were his family. His wife, his kids, his parents, his in-laws. Everyone. And after thanking his new bosses and recognizing those that gave him this opportunity, Alexander proceeded to thank the man that set him on this career path.

“Outside of those that share [my DNA], there’s not one person anywhere that’s made me more the man I am today than Rick Byrd,” Alexander said, while choking up. Byrd crossed enemy lines to attend and support his former player and assistant coach. There are few coaches in the country that are as universally respected as Byrd is, and one of the reasons for that is his unconditional support for former members of the program. It doesn’t matter why someone wants to leave or where they want to go, Byrd is going to help them follow through.

Even if it means watching one of his protégés take over his program’s biggest rival.

“When I first started talking to him about this job,” Alexander said, “you can imagine it was probably like a lot of you, a lot of raised eyebrows and so forth. But it took one conversation, literally, for him to forget where it was and who it was. Because all he cares about is what’s best for the people that he has worked with.”

The way Alexander tells it, playing Belmont as the coach at Lipscomb will be easier for him than playing Belmont during his first season at Stetson. It was the first basketball season since he was in high school that he wasn’t a member of the Bruins in one form or another, and he had literally recruited every player on the Bruin team.

It’s a tough sell, however; Alexander’s very first game on the Lipscomb sideline will come against Belmont.

For Byrd, having Alexander on the opposite bench will actually make the rivalry more tolerable.

“People that know me know that I haven’t really enjoyed the rivalry,” Byrd said. “It’s hard to enjoy it because it means so much to people on our side and their side.”

“But I really think with Casey there it’s almost going to be easier for me. I like to compete and coach against guys that I think have the kind of class that Casey has. Those are the people I respect. I don’t like to lose to anybody, but I’d much rather lose to folks that I think are going about it in a proper way.”

Byrd can be confident that Alexander will be one of those people.

That’s what he spent 20 years teaching Alexander to do.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

UCF’s Tacko Fall to miss the rest of the season with shoulder injury

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UCF junior big man Tacko Fall will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, it was announced on Saturday.

College basketball’s tallest athlete at 7-foot-6, Fall is UCF’s leading scorer and shot blocker while being second in the nation in field goal percentage at 76 percent. Putting up 11.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in only 21.3 minutes per contest, Fall is the most unique weapon on both ends of the floor in the college basketball.

Fall is expected to have surgery on his ailing shoulder later this week as he suffered an injury over the summer that never fully recovered. Fall has also dealt with a hip injury that forced him to miss time during the season.

The Knights have been crushed with injuries this season. Aubrey Dawkins suffered a season-ending shoulder injury before the season started and promising point guard B.J. Taylor missed over two months with a foot injury suffered during the season opener against Mercer.

UCF is still having a solid season at 12-6 and 3-3 in the American but they’ll need to forge on without its big man. They’ve also lost two consecutive games and need to figure things out in a hurry to earn a spot in the postseason.

WATCH LIVE: Atlantic 10 basketball tripleheader Saturday on NBCSN

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The Atlantic 10 comes to NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Saturday with three games that will air as part of a tripleheader.

It starts with George Washington at VCU at 12:30 p.m., continues with La Salle playing at Richmond at 2:30 p.m. and concludes with George Mason traveling to Duquesne at 4:30 p.m.

CLICK HERE to watch the Atlantic 10 on NBCSN

Sexual assault investigation involving Saint Louis basketball players becoming public

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A messy situation could be unfolding at Saint Louis University as a sexual assault investigation involving the men’s basketball team is coming more into public focus.

Saint Louis is a private school who is going through a Title IX investigation and there hasn’t been a lot of publicity surrounding the case. Back in September, three women told police they were sexually assaulted by four members of the Saint Louis men’s basketball team at an on-campus apartment.

A lawyer for three of the four accused players is claiming that his clients committed no crime. Lawyer Scott Rosenblum spoke to Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, giving the players’ account of what happened that night in graphic detail. Rosenblum said his clients have received suspensions ranging from 18 months to two years and a fourth player was expelled.

According to Rosenblum, his clients don’t intend to stay silent as they are considering an appeal. Legal action against Saint Louis University has also been discussed.

“At the end of the day, on every college campus, unfortunately, both genders make decisions that after they walk away from that decision, they regret,” Rosenblum said to Frederickson. “They think, this maybe wasn’t the best decision. But it wasn’t a crime. And it wasn’t actionable.”

Rosenblum also claimed that Saint Louis has, “overly prosecuted with an agenda from the beginning,” as he posed several questions about the case.

One of the accused players had been allowed to play at Saint Louis while three others were held out, according to Rosenblum. The three players held out of games were also allowed to practice and travel with the team. Players were also told to move off campus, eventually welcomed back, then forced to move off campus once again. Suspensions were also handed out weeks into the new semester instead of the break between semesters.

Rosenblum’s remarks about the investigation are the most public details to come out about this investigation as Saint Louis University officials have remained silent throughout the process.

Government shutdown forces Air Force to cancel all athletic events

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The Air Force Academy has been forced to cancel all home and away games due to the government shutdown, the school announced on Saturday.

Announcing on the official Air Force Academy Twitter page, the school will attempt to reschedule as many missed events as possible.

Canceled games include a home men’s basketball game against Fresno State on Saturday and a home hockey game against Sacred Heart. According to a report from the Colorado Springs Gazette, the women’s basketball team is in Fresno, Calif., for a road game against Fresno State, but that game will also not be played.

This is an unprecedented measure for the Air Force Academy as they’ve been able to play through government shutdowns before. In 2013, the USAA gave a $230,000 check to help Air Force football travel to Navy for its game. Government shutdowns in the 1990s also never forced the cancellation of any major Air Force games in the past.

A source told NBC Sports that Army’s athletic department has not been affected as it is privately funded. Navy’s athletic department should also be able to operate and continue under the government shutdown since they are privately funded.

Without private sponsors helping, it looks like Air Force won’t be playing until the government shutdown is over. The Gazette also reported on Saturday that Air Force athletic officials knew that this could be a possibility and said it would be an “11th hour decision.”

Air Force men’s basketball is 8-10 with a 2-4 record in the Mountain West this season. While the Falcons haven’t been a major contender, they had the momentum of a small two-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s home game against Fresno State.

The Falcons are also scheduled to play on the road at Utah State on Wednesday and host Boise State next Saturday.

Bosnian professional team announces they have signed Billy Preston

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Billy Preston has signed with BC Igokea, a Bosnian professional team, according to a release put out by the club on Saturday.

“We are thrilled to welcome Billy Preston to our club,” the statement read. “We were watching his situation closely and reached out to his family to show interest and ultimately reached an agreement with the family attorney in California on a contract for the rest of the season. We know Billy is an NBA prospect so we will do our best to continue his development to help him excel for our club and fulfill his goal which is to be an NBA star in the near future.”

“Billy Preston is foregoing his eligibility to play at Kansas and has signed with a professional team in Bosnia,” head coach Bill Self said in a statement provided to NBC Sports. “Billy’s family has been very upfront telling us that his first choice was to stay at Kansas, but with the uncertainty of the situation they needed to look at other potential options. This opportunity in Bosnia came with a deadline for a decision, and the family reached that decision Friday afternoon.”

“We are all disappointed that Billy never had the opportunity to experience college basketball competition but we certainly support him and wish him the best. Although he has been frustrated with the situation, Billy’s attitude has been tremendous and he has developed as a person and as a player. I’m sure that will continue as he prepares for his professional career.”

Igokea’s roster also includes former UCLA guard Malcolm Lee, former Oregon and UTEP guard Dominic Artis and Katin Reinhardt, who played at UNLV, USC and Marquette.

Preston had enrolled at Kansas as a freshman this season, but he was involved in a car accident prior to the start of the season. He was held out from competition as the school attempted to find out who was paying for the vehicle.