AP

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.”

Southern Conference to keep championships in North Carolina

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The Southern Conference will keep four league championships in North Carolina despite the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference withdrawing championships because of the state law restricting the rights of LGBT people.

The league said it will honor commitments for these tournaments: men’s soccer in Greensboro, men’s and women’s basketball in Asheville and men’s golf in Pinehurst.

“We don’t want to punish the local host communities by pulling the championships out of the state this year,” Commissioner John Iamarino said Friday. “That point did resonate with presidents and chancellors.”

The league said in a statement its presidents and chancellors “reaffirmed their resolute opposition to legislation that discriminates against any individual.”

Iamarino said his conference was prepared for criticism in light of the NCAA and ACC decisions over the North Carolina’s law, which excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from local and statewide antidiscrimination protections. It also requires transgender people to use restrooms at schools and government buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates.

HB2 was signed into law this year by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who has defended it as a commonsense safety and security measure.

The Southern Conference is headquartered in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Its 10 schools – Citadel, Chattanooga, East Tennessee, Furman, Mercer, UNC Greensboro, Samford, VMI, Western Carolina and Wofford – are in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The decision on the championships came after two conference calls among league leaders.

“While not unanimous, we found enough common ground to get to this point,” Iamarino said.

He said the league was influenced by the North Carolina host communities, all urging the conference to hold its events as planned. In Asheville, Iamarino said he met with about 30 people, including some from the LGBT community, who promised to fight the HB2 law but wanted the basketball tournaments to remain.

Iamarino said the venues involved are privately controlled and the league is confident of there will be an inclusive atmosphere at the events. The men’s golf event will be held at Pinehurst Country Club and the basketball at a neutral site in Asheville.

The soccer will be played on the Greensboro campus.

Earlier this month, the NCAA removed seven championships from North Carolina, including first- and second-round games of the men’s basketball tournament scheduled for Greensboro. The ACC soon followed suit, pulling 10 of its championships from the state, including the football title game that was scheduled for Charlotte.

The ACC on Thursday relocated the football game to Orlando, Florida.

Iamarino said Southern Conference presidents and chancellors will meet in May to see if more action is necessary. He said there’s concern similar laws could extend beyond North Carolina.

“This could be a long-term issue,” he said.

Iamarino said he’s also concerned the schools against keeping the championships in North Carolina might take their own actions, perhaps boycotting the league events played there.

“It’s a real concern,” he said. “We’ll continue to communicate and prepare for everything.”

Report: Virginia Tech forward Blackshear still recovering from offseason foot surgery

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Kerry Blackshear Jr. #24 of the Virginia Tech Hokies and Kamari Murphy #21 of the Miami Hurricanes go for a rebound in the second half during the quarterfinals of the 2016 ACC Basketball Tournament Verizon Center on March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Virginia Tech sophomore forward Kerry Blackshear will miss the start of training camp as he continues to recover from offseason foot surgery, according to a report from Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The 6-foot-10 Blackshear played in all 35 games for the Hokies last season as he battled through the foot injury to average 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. According to Barber’s report, Blackshear had surgery on his right foot five days after the 2015-16 season ended, but he’s still wearing a walking boot to help recover. There has been no timetable given for Blackshear’s return.

Blackshear will be a key piece for a Virginia Tech team that is a bit thin up front this season. Freshman Khadim Sy can provide some minutes up front, but he’s inexperienced and center Nick Fullard has to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Getting a healthy Blackshear will be a key storyline for a Virginia Tech team that many will have in the preseason top 25.

Indiana roster dealing with handful of injuries as practice begins

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 20:  A general view of  the SMU Mustangs game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Assembly Hall on November 20, 2014 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Indiana has been hit with the injury buy a bit during the start of practice and it doesn’t only involved the recent announcement of knee surgery for senior Collin Hartman.

According to a report from the Indiana Daily Student the Hoosiers are also dealing with a knee injury for junior college transfer forward Freddie McSwain and sophomore Juwan Morgan hasn’t been cleared for practice yet after offseason shoulder surgery.

The 6-foot-6 McSwain had a knee injury flare up when he came to Indiana and had surgery to clean it up. Crean told the Indiana Daily Student that McSwain was still a few weeks from returning.

That means Indiana has to find early practice minutes to replace Hartman, Morgan and McSwain up front which gives more reps to players like O.G. Anunoby and freshman big man De’Ron Davis.

Since Anunoby and Davis both dealt with some offseason injuries and guard Robert Johnson was recently cleared to return, Hoosiers head coach Tom Crean is remaining cautious during the early part of practice this season. Crean also has to monitor the return of starting guard James Blackmon Jr. after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL.

“We would have already practiced this morning and they would be ready to go tonight, if this were a year ago,” Crean said in the report. “We have to tailor make this thing. We can’t be in too much of a rush with these guys.”

Obviously, the frontcourt injuries are something to keep an eye on for Indiana during the early part of the season. None of the three injuries seem severe, but Hartman’s timetable to return hasn’t been listed and McSwain and Morgan are missing valuable early time in practice.

It’ll be interesting to see if this helps younger players like Anunoby and Davis get more acquainted with the first team early on since both could have an impact this season.

Texas lands four-star Class of 2017 guard Jase Febres

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Texas and head coach Shaka Smart continue to recruit at a high level, especially in the state of Texas, as the Longhorns landed a commitment from Class of 2017 four-star guard Jase Febres on Friday night.

The 6-foot-5 Febres is considered the No. 63 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2017 rankings as he burst on the national radar this summer with some strong shooting performances. Febres shot over 40 percent from three-point range during the month of July after battling through injury during the spring. Besides owning good size for a wing shooter, Febres also takes pride in defending and he can rebound a bit from the wing as well.

Febres is going to have to improve his overall offensive package if a defense plays him off the three-point line, but he has upside as a three-and-D guy with the Longhorns.

The Class of 2017 is starting to round into shape for Texas as Febres joins four-star power forward Jericho Sims and four-star forward Royce Hamm. Since taking over the Texas job, Smart has done a great job of keeping local talent home as he now has five four- and five-star prospects from the state in the last two classes.

 

VIDEO: Kentucky fans get married in the ticket line for Big Blue Madness

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Kentucky fans have unique ways of making their annual Big Blue Madness event the most chaotic tip-off event of the season. While Big Blue Nation is waiting in line for tickets to this year’s festivities in Tent City, one couple decided to go the extra mile.

After securing the first spot in line for tickets, Ray Branham and Vicki Harvey opted to get married. According to a post from Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio, the couple had already been talking about tying the knot, but decided to make the move once they had the top spot in line. As you can see by the wedding video, it was a very Kentucky-themed ceremony as the duo got married in front of friends and other Kentucky fans.

I can’t say I’m surprised two Kentucky fans decided to get married in line for something like Big Blue Madness and this (unplanned) wedding gives this year’s event something unique that we will always remember.