Rick Byrd, Belmont looking to continue streak of NCAA tournament appearances

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Belmont Athletics

Only three programs have earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in six out of the last eight seasons — Kansas, Memphis and the Bruins.

The Belmont Bruins.

The latest trip to the Big Dance this past March almost didn’t happen. Belmont head coach Rick Byrd needed two clutch shots, including the game-winner, from senior guard Kerron Johnson to top Isaiah Canaan and Murray State in overtime to punch the Bruins ticket, earning the automatic bid in the team’s first season in the Ohio Valley.

It marked Belmont’s third straight trip to the NCAA tournament, but in each of those three seasons, Belmont was outed in the first game. The same thing happened when Byrd led the Bruins to three straight tournaments from 2006-2008. The Bruins string of postseason appearances largely goes unnoticed because they haven’t had a Cinderella-type run like its former Atlantic Sun foe Florida Gulf Coast.

Nonetheless, what Byrd has done over his 28 years — and most recently in the last eight years — has been an impressive feat.

“A whole lot of things go into that,” Byrd told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “Being lucky. The first time we made it and the last time we made it, we won overtime games that could have gone the other way.”

During Byrd’s tenure at Belmont, he has transitioned the former NAIA program to a Division I conference title winner and NCAA tournament regular.

“I think Belmont University deserves a lot of credit,” Byrd added. “Over that same period of time, it has grown in so many ways.”

The university, a liberal arts college in Nashville, TN, has seen their enrollment increase from 3,000 to 6,918 since 2000 and in that time added a law school and built new residence halls. Like the changes on campus, the basketball program took time to build.

“The best thing we’ve done as a staff is decisions in the recruiting process, and identifying players,” Byrd said.

“We went from NAIA to Division I in ’97-’98. We could have gone after guys who were kicked off their teams or JuCo transfers and taken chances on guys with questions academically or character wise and maybe you could win games quicker that way. I don’t think that’s what Belmont deserved. That’s not the program that I wanted to build. We took our lumps, we took it slowly. We sort of incrementally got there.”

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Rick Byrd (Getty Images)

The Bruins roster has been made up of high-character players, ones who will stay four or five years and provide experience to the Belmont program. A glance at the roster this season shows returning starter J.J. Mann is an older senior after spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy (Va.). The likely successor to Johnson is Reece Chamberlain, a redshirt junior. One of the key newcomers is Drew Windler, a redshirt senior following his transfer from Samford.

“I think when you have a program built on four and five year guys, you have guys who play supporting roles and then [over time] have to become the go-to guys,” Byrd said. “We’ve got a lot of experience.”

To Byrd, it’s like a revolving door, where players come in and take on larger roles over the years when other standouts graduate. He mentioned all-OVC selection Kerron Johnson, the OVC tournament hero last year, who had to wait his turn to be the go-guy, and went onto point out that Ian Clark didn’t even lead the team in scoring as a junior, before averaging 18.2 points per game last season.

The Belmont program has built a culture, and its starting to feed itself. Players come in, and work their way up through the system, from contributor to bigger roles as a starter or even an all-conference caliber player. In return, the team has won games, conference titles and made tournament appearances. All have helped on the recruiting trail, but another pitch Byrd and his staff make to potential players is the team’s non-conference schedules, which is usually considered one of the best. Games in the past at Duke and Kansas — this year against North Carolina and Kentucky — not only offer a challenging early season test, but catch the attention of prospects. especially in 2011, when Belmont nearly upset Duke.

“When we schedule those games, I’d rather schedule people and places that our players will remember for the rest of their lives, rather than take a check and play a team that doesn’t mean a lot,” Byrd said. “That’s what this whole thing is about. They are going to remember those games at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and Cameron Indoor Stadium, and now at Chapel Hill and Rupp Arena.”

Belmont will have a tough road again with non-conference games against, not only against Kentucky and North Carolina, but also at VCU. The Ohio Valley Conference, the same league that has seen players drafted in three consecutive years, will have a strong conference again this season with teams like Eastern Kentucky and Southeast Missouri State filled with key returners and teams like Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois posing as potential sleepers. Belmont has a difficult ladder to climb in order to secure its seven automatic bid in nine years, as the Bruins attempt to return to the Big Dance and get that elusive tournament win.

“We may never get back,” Byrd said of the NCAA tournament. “If we don’t even win one, I hope we get back. People don’t really appreciate it until you get there.”

The head coach at small liberal arts college in Nashville, Tenn., has put in close to three decades of work, building and growing his program. The hard work was part of the equation that’s led to an under-appreciated string of success. The other portion according to Byrd:

“We’ve been lucky.”

2017 NBA Draft Early Entry List: Who is staying and who is going?

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RETURNING TO SCHOOL

Jalen Adams, UConn
Grayson Allen, Duke (story)
Tyus Battle, Syracuse
Marques Bolden, Duke
Mikal Bridges (story)
Miles Bridges, Michigan State (story)
Bruce Brown, Miami
Jalen Brunson (story)
Jeffery Carroll, Oklahoma State (story)
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Marcus Foster, Creighton
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas (story)
E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
Shake Milton, SMU
Chimezie Metu, USC
Allonzo Trier, Arizona (story)
Robert Williams, Texas A&M (story)

DECLARING, SIGNING WITH AN AGENT

Jarrett Allen, Texas (story)
Ike Anigbogu, UCLA (story)
O.G. Anunoby, Indiana (story)
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State (story)
Lonzo Ball, UCLA (story)
Jordan Bell, Oregon (story)
Antonio Blakeney, LSU (story)
John Collins, Wake Forest
Zach Collins, Gonzaga (story)
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon (story)
P.J. Dozier, South Carolina (story)
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State (story)
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (story)
Markelle Fultz, Washington (story)
Harry Giles III, Duke (story)
Isaac Humphries, Kentucky (story)
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State (story)
Justin Jackson, North Carolina (story)
Luke Kennard, Duke (story)
T.J. Leaf, UCLA (story)
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse (story)
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona (story)
Malik Monk, Kentucky (story)
Austin Nichols, Virginia
Justin Patton, Creighton (story)
L.J. Peak, Georgetown
Ivan Rabb, California (story)
Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State
Devin Robinson, Florida
Kobi Simmons, Arizona (story)
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State (story)
Edmond Sumner, Xavier (story)
Jayson Tatum, Duke (story)
Melo Trimble, Maryland (story)
Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga (story)

DECLARING WITHOUT AN AGENT

Shaqquan Aaron, USC
Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky (story)
Deng Adel, Louisville
Jashaun Agosto, LIU-Brooklyn
Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Mark Alstork, Wright State
Jaylen Barford, Arkansas
James Blackmon, Indiana
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Tony Bradley, North Carolina
Dillon Brooks, Oregon
Thomas Bryant, Indiana (story)
Rodney Bullock, Providence
Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
Jeffery Carroll, Oklahoma State
Jason Chartouny, Fordham
Donte Clark, UMass (story)
Chance Comanche, Arizona
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky (story)
Vince Edwards, Purdue
John Egbunu, Florida
Jon Elmore, Marshall
Obi Enechionyia, Temple
Drew Eubanks, Oregon State
Tacko Fall, UCF
Brandon Goodwin, FGCU
Isaac Haas, Purdue
Aaron Holiday, UCLA
Chandler Hutchinson, Boise State
Frank Jackson, Duke (story)
B.J. Johnson, La Salle
Darin Johnson, CSUN
Jaylen Johnson, Louisville
Robert Johnson, Indiana
Andrew Jones, Texas
Kerem Kanter, Green Bay
Marcus Keene, Central Michigan
Braxton Key, Alabama
Kyle Kuzma, Utah
William Lee, UAB
Daryl Macon, Arkansas
Yante Maten, Georgia
Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
Eric Mika, BYU
Johnathan Motley, Baylor (story)
Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas (story)
Semi Ojeleye, SMU
Cam Oliver, Nevada
Randy Onwuasor, Southern Utah
Maverick Rowan, N.C. State
Corey Sanders, Rutgers
Jaaron Simmons, Ohio
Jaren Sina, George Washington
Elijah Stewart, USC
Caleb Swanigan (story)
Stevie Thompson, Oregon State
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State
Mo Wagner, Michigan
Thomas Welsh, UCLA
Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan
D.J. Wilson, Michigan
Omer Yurtseven, N.C. State

YET TO DECIDE

Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Jacob Evans, Cincinnati
Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vanderbilt
Jessie Govan, Georgetown
Donta Hall, Alabama
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M
Justin Jackson, Maryland
V.J. King, Louisville
Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Anas Mahmoud, Louisville
De’Anthony Melton, USC
Theo Pinson, North Carolina
Jerome Robinson, Boston College

Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo declares for NBA Draft

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Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo is declaring for the NBA Draft, although he is not signing with an agent to retain his collegiate eligibility.

Diallo was originally a member of the Class of 2017, but he spent half of last season at a prep school and enrolled at Kentucky in January as a redshirt. Being a year removed from his high school graduation and 19 years old, he is allowed to declare for the draft.

“When I decided to enroll in school in January, my plan was to come to Kentucky to work on my game and to focus on school,” Diallo said. “At the end of the season, I knew I wanted to see where I was in the draft process and go through that so I could get a proper evaluation.”

“That plan hasn’t changed and that’s why I am declaring for the NBA Draft. I want to see where my game is and explore my options.”

Diallo, a top ten player in the class, is as explosive of an athlete as you are going to find. He should be an elite defender, but he will be drafted based mostly on his potential offensively.

Since Diallo is not signing with an agent, he will be able to return to school without penalty. He’s currently projected as a late second round pick in the 2018 draft, but he’s likely a second round pick in a deeper draft this year.

Reports: Duke’s Frank Jackson to declare for draft

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Frank Jackson will declare for the draft but will not be signing with an agent, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Previous reports had indicated that Jackson “planned” to return to school, and that still may end up proving true. But the combination of Trevon Duval potentially enrolling at Duke combined with the fact that there is zero downside to going through the draft process, it makes sense for Jackson to declare.

Jackson averaged 10.9 points and shot 39.5 percent from three. He’s projected as a mid-first round pick in 2018 by Draft Express, but at 6-foot-3, he’s too small to play the two in the NBA and has yet to prove he can be a point guard.

Jackson is the fourth Duke player to declare, following Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Luke Kennard. All three signed with an agent. Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden are both returning to school.

VIDEO: Top 2018 recruits Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford go head-to-head at adidas

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This weekend is the first live evaluation period of the spring recruiting calendar as college coaches from all over the country are scouting (and babysitting) the top recruits in the Class of 2018 and 2019.

Friday night the adidas Gauntlet in Dallas opened with a marquee matchup of two star players as five-star forward Zion Williamson and five-star guard Romeo Langford went head-to-head in what should be one of the best games of the spring.

Most scouting services have Williamson and Langford as the No. 2 and No. 3 overall prospects in the Class of 2018 as the duo didn’t disappoint in front of the huge crowd in Fort Worth.

Williamson helped his team to a win with 26 points and seven rebounds while Langford had 28 points, four rebounds and four assists. You’ll be hearing plenty about both of these guys over the next few months as both are still wide open in the recruting process.

(H/t: Ball is Life)

Report: Coppin State hires Juan Dixon as new head coach

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Coppin State has hired former Maryland star guard Juan Dixon to be its next head coach, according to a report from Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun.

The 38-year-old Dixon is best known for leading Maryland to the 2002 national championship as he was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four that year. Now Dixon will have a chance to lead a Division I program for the first time.

Dixon spent seven years in the NBA and also played professionally in Europe before joining the Maryland coaching staff in 2013 as a special assistant to head coach Mark Turgeon. Not retained by Maryland after the 2015-16 season, Dixon took the head coaching job for the women’s team at the University of the District of Columbia last season as the Division II program finished only  3-25.

Coppin State finished last season with an 8-24 record after losing its first 12 games of the season. While Dixon will generate some positive local buzz given his background, he’s going to have an uphill battle trying to rebuild that program.