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

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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.”

Reports: Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo to sign with an agent

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Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo will sign with an agent and remain in the NBA Draft, according to multiple reports.

Adebayo officially declared for the draft the day after the national title game, but he initially did not sign with an agent. “I feel like I’m making the right step in declaring for the draft,” he said at the time, “but I want to be absolutely sure that I’m making the right decision for me and my mom.”

A 6-foot-10 big man that averaged 13.0 points, 8.0 boards and 1.5 blocks, Adebayo is a borderline first round pick. He’s a freak athlete but he’s a little undersized for a five and doesn’t have the perimeter ability to play a stretch role.

Adebayo is one of six players that has declared for the draft from Kentucky: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Hamidou Diallo, Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries are the other five.

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

Bam Adebayo, Kentucky (story)
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)
Jaylen Johnson, Louisville
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
Deng Adel, Louisville
Jashaun Agosto, LIU-Brooklyn
Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Mark Alstork, Wright State
Jaylen Barford, Arkansas
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
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
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
Theo Pinson, North Carolina
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
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
Jerome Robinson, Boston College

Louisville’s Jaylen Johnson to hire agent, pursue pro career

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Louisville center Jaylen Johnson’s college career is over, as he will sign with an agent and remain in the NBA Draft.

“After a lengthy conversation with Coach P I have decided to hire an agent and forego my senior year,” said Johnson. “I will miss my teammates and coaches, but it is really important that I help out my mom and family. I’m going to work incredibly hard to give it my best shot. I’ll be rooting for the Ville next year.”

As a junior, the 6-foot-8 Johnson averaged 8.0 points and 5.8 rebounds. He likely would have started next season for a team that is ranked No. 1 in the latest NBC Sports preseason rankings.

Johnson plead guilty last week to possession of marijuana. At the time, Louisville SID Kenny Klein told a reporter from WDRB in Louisville that the program “just became aware of the matter“.

“Jaylen and I had a long conversation,” said UofL Coach Rick Pitino. “He feels strongly about trying to make the league and help his family, as they have always been there for him. Jaylen has been a valuable asset to our program and has given me his heart and soul for the last three years. We wish him great success and we will be following his progress closely.”

UNC’s Berry, Bradley, Pinson to declare for the NBA Draft

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North Carolina announced on Monday that Joel Berry II, Tony Bradley and Theo Pinson will be declaring for the NBA Draft. None of the three will hire an agent initially.

“We fully support our players taking this step of being evaluated by NBA teams to see where they stand in relation to the Draft,” says Carolina head coach Roy Williams. “All three players have options to do what is best for their careers and going through the evaluation process helps them make the best decision available to each of them.”

The Tar Heels are coming off of winning the 2017 National Title and already lost Justin Jackson, a potential lottery pick, to the NBA. He is hiring an agent.

Of the three, Bradley is the only potential first round pick. A 7-footer with broad shoulders, long arms and a penchant for getting to the offensive glass, Bradley has a shot at sneaking into the back-end of the first round this year. He averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds and shot 57.3 percent from the floor, although those numbers were kept in check because he played behind the senior front line of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. If he returns to school, he’ll have a shot to be a first-team all-ACC player and maybe play his way into the lottery of a weaker draft.

Berry and Pinson, who will be seniors next season, have a more interesting decision on their hands. Both would be drafted in the second round, if at all, but it’s fair to wonder if it makes sense to return. Berry built on a terrific end to his sophomore season by playing at an all-ACC level as a junior and winning Final Four MOP. Pinson battled injury much of the year.

If all three stay in the draft, UNC will be losing their top seven off of last years title-winning team.

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.