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.”

source: Getty Images
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.”

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Five ranked teams fall, No. 12 Arizona survives

Brad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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GAME OF THE DAY: Syracuse 79, No. 18 UConn 76

The former Big East rivals met in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis and the game did not disappoint, with Jim Boeheim’s Orange pulling out a three-point victory. Michael Gbinije (17 points, seven assists) and Trevor Cooney played well on the perimeter, but junior Tyler Roberson and freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon made some big plays as well.

UConn couldn’t get the rebound of a Cooney missed shot in the final seconds, not getting a chance at a game-tying shot as a result. Daniel Hamilton led the Huskies with 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

Rob Dauster wrote more about this game here.


Monmouth 70, No. 17 Notre Dame 68: Justin Robinson made two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining to give the Hawks a two-point win over the Fighting Irish at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando. Robinson scored a game-high 22 points, with Demetrius Jackson leading Notre Dame with 20.

No. 25 Texas A&M 62, No. 10 Gonzaga 61: Billy Kennedy’s team played outstanding defense on the Bulldogs’ final possession of the game, switching all screens and hanging on as Silas Melson’s shot missed the mark. Danuel House scored 19 points and Tonny Trocha-Morelos added 14 for the Aggies, who will play Syracuse in Friday’s Battle 4 Atlantis title game. Kyle Wiltjer scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds for Gonzaga.

San Diego State 72, No. 14 California 58: With 17:24 remaining the Golden Bears led 45-30 and looked well-positioned to advance to Friday’s Continental Las Vegas Classic title game. From that point on they were outscored 42-13, with SDSU combining improved offense with stifling defense. Winston Shepard scored all 15 of his points in the second half and Skylar Spencer added ten second-half points to lead the way for the Aztecs, who will play West Virginia Friday. Ivan Rabb scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Golden Bears.


Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine posted his second triple-double of the season in the Spartans’ 99-68 win over Boston College, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.

Devin Williams, West Virginia: The junior forward scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers to a 67-59 win over Richmond in Las Vegas.

Charles Mitchell, Georgia Tech: Mitchell scored 18 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in a win over Arkansas.

Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara: Sure he shot 11-for-29 from the field in scoring his 44 points, but given Santa Clara’s youth and lack of a consistent supplementary scorer Brownridge has to take those shots. The Broncos took No. 12 Arizona to overtime before falling by two points.


Stanford: Not only did the Cardinal shoot 26 percent in their loss to No. 8 Villanova, but they also committed 23 turnovers on the day.

Ryan Kemrite, Liberty: Kemrite shot 1-for-10 from the field, scoring two points in the Flames’ 73-62 loss to Appalachian State.

Arizona’s perimeter shooting: The Wildcats shot 3-for-22 from three in a two-point win over Santa Clara. Over the last two games Sean Miller’s team has shot 8-for-44 from beyond the arc.


  • No. 3 Michigan State rolled to a 99-68 win over Boston College, with the result being Tom Izzo’s 500th win as a head coach. Denzel Valentine went for 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.
  • No. 8 Villanova shot just 30.6 percent from the field, but their opponents shot even worse in the 59-46 Wildcat win over Stanford. The Cardinal shot 26 percent from the field and committed 23 turnovers.
  • No. 12 Arizona survived questionable shot selection and a 44-point night from Jared Brownridge to beat winless Santa Clara 75-73 in overtime. Ryan Anderson scored 17 to lead the way for Arizona, which lost Kaleb Tarczewski in the second half to a left ankle injury.
  • Bennie Boatwright scored 22 points to lead USC to a 72-69 win over No. 20 Wichita State. Ron Baker led all scorers with 25 points, but he and Markis McDuffie (14 points) were the only Shockers to reach double figures.
  • No. 23 Xavier took over in the second half of its game against Alabama, outscoring the Crimson Tide by 16 points to win by the final score of 64-45.


  • Texas exacted a measure of revenge on Washington, beating the Huskies 82-70 at the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Huskies won the first meeting between the two teams this season in Shanghai in the season opener for both.
  • Georgia Tech advanced to the title game of the Preseason NIT with a ten-point win over Arkansas in Brooklyn. Charles Mitchell went for 18 points and 18 rebounds for the Yellow Jackets, who play No. 8 Villanova Friday.
  • Anthony Drmic scored 21 points and Chandler Hutchison added 13 points and ten rebounds as Boise State beat UC Irvine 71-64 at the DirecTV Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, California.
  • Devin Williams scored 23 points and grabbed 12 boards in West Virginia’s 67-59 win over Richmond at the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. The Mountaineers only forced 14 turnovers, but they made up for it by limiting Richmond to 39.1 percent shooting.
  • Ben Bentil scored 24 points and Kris Dunn added 18 as Providence beat Evansville 74-64. The 24 points represents a career high for Bentil.
  • Scoochie Smith made two huge baskets and Charles Cooke scored 22 points as Dayton went on a game-ending 11-2 run to beat Iowa 82-77. Jarrod Uthoff led the Hawkeyes with 18 points.
  • Moritz Wagner scored 19 points to lead four players in double figures as Michigan rolled to a 102-47 win over Charlotte. After struggling offensively against UConn on Wednesday, the Wolverines shot 61.9 percent from the field against the 49ers.

No. 3 Michigan State routs Boston College 99-68

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) Denzel Valentine had a triple-double of 29 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, and No. 3 Michigan State beat Boston College 99-68 Thursday in an opening-round game at the DirectTV Wooden Legacy, giving coach Tom Izzo his 500th career victory.

Valentine helped the Spartans expand their 13-point halftime lead to 27 midway through the second half. His second triple-double of the season was the first in the event’s nine-year history.

Valentine’s six 3-pointers were one off his career high, and his points total was a career best.

Tum Tum Nairn added 13 points and eight assists for the Spartans, who shot 63 percent and dominated the boards 38-20.

After the final buzzer, Izzo’s players gathered around him at midcourt, holding up “Izzo 500” signs and posing for photos.

Eli Carter, a graduate transfer from Florida, led the Eagles with 22 points – one off his career high at BC.

The Spartans (5-0) next play Boise State (3-2) on Friday. The Broncos beat UC Irvine 71-64 in the day’s first game at cozy Titan Gym on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.

Boston College (3-1) will play Irvine (4-1) on Friday.

After hitting consecutive 3-pointers, Valentine backpedaled up the court smiling at Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green sitting courtside. Valentine converted a one-handed jam off a turnover and dashed over to high-five Green, clearly delighted by his alma mater’s theatrics.

Valentine scored 14 points in Michigan State’s 25-11 run to open the second half. The Spartans made four straight 3-pointers in the spurt, with Valentine hitting three in a row and passing to Bryn Forbes for the other.

The Eagles tried rallying from the perimeter, getting three straight 3s while closing to 80-59. It didn’t help. Valentine sparked a 10-0 burst with a basket and an assist that pushed Michigan State’s lead to 88-59.

The Spartans led 46-33 at halftime, getting 13 straight points from Valentine in a 23-13 run to close the half. He had eight points as the Spartans rattled off 10 in a row to launch the spurt that produced their largest lead of 15.

Michigan State shot 62 percent in the game’s opening minutes and built a 19-10 lead before Valentine even made his first basket. The Eagles answered with a 10-4 run to close to 23-20 before Valentine’s offensive outburst gave the Spartans a cushion.


Boston College: The Eagles were trying for their first 4-0 start since 2007. … Assistant coach Stan Heath, in his first season with the Eagles, spent five years in the same job under Izzo before leaving after the 2001 season.

Michigan State: Green played for the Spartans from 2008-12. … Michigan State evened the all-time series 3-3. … Valentine joined Green as one of only four Spartans to record a triple-double. Green had three in his career.


Boston College plays UC Irvine on Friday.

Michigan State plays Boise State on Friday.