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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.”

Indiana upsets No. 4 Iowa, moves into first-place tie in Big Ten

Indiana's Troy Williams (5) and Collin Hartman (30) celebrate after Williams made a shot and was fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Indiana picked off the No. 4 team in the country on Thursday night, beating Iowa in Assembly Hall, 85-78.

It goes without saying that this was a huge win for the Hoosiers. They had just a single top 50 win on their résumé entering the night. They were on the right side of the bubble entering the day, but for a team that just moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with the win, they were no where near as safe as you might think.

You read that right.

Indiana is not exactly safe when it comes to their NCAA tournament standing despite, on February 11th, being tied with Iowa and Maryland for first place in the Big Ten.

So yes, adding a top ten win to that profile is incredibly significant.

Having a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten regular season title is incredibly significant.

But more than anything, how this win came to be matters more than anything.

For starters, it came on a night where Yogi Ferrell was off. He hit his first shot and his last shot of the night, but missed all ten field goal attempts in between. He finished with just one assist compared to two turnovers and four fouls. He was bad. And it didn’t matter. For a team that relies as heavily upon a player as Indiana relies upon Yogi, that’s significant.

As is the fact that the Hoosiers were able to win despite blowing a 16-point lead. Remember, Indiana had lost to Penn State on Saturday. Following that up by blowing a huge lead at home in the most important game of the season is the kind of thing that can obliterate a team’s confidence, and with a brutal stretch run — at Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, at Illinois, at Iowa, Maryland — getting into a funk now would be a season-killer.

Six Hoosiers scored at least nine points, led by 14 from Ferrell, while it was the play of Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams, grabbing 10 of Indiana’s 19 offensive rebounds, that really made the difference; the Hoosiers scored 26 second-chance points.

As far as Iowa is concerned, the only real problem coming from this loss was their inability to keep Indiana off of the offensive glass. The Hoosiers had 12 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Iowa had 11 total rebounds. On the season, the Hawkeyes are 225th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Indiana gets to the offensive glass as well as anyone, but Fran McCaffery is not going to be happy about their numbers — or effort — when he watches this film.

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Indiana, California pick up important home wins

Indiana's Collin Hartman (30) and Yogi Ferrell (11) celebrate late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Indiana 85, No. 4 Iowa 78

There’s now a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings, as the Hoosiers outlasted the Hawkeyes in Bloomington. Yogi Ferrell led five Indiana players in double figures with 14 points, and Tom Crean’s team won this one in large part due to their rebounding (19 offensive rebounds) and accuracy from the foul line. Indiana made 18 of its 21 attempts from the charity stripe, with Iowa going a pedestrian 13-for-23. Jarrod Uthoff scored 24 points and Mike Gesell 17, but those missed opportunities from the foul line proved costly for Fran McCaffery’s team.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

California 83, No. 11 Oregon 63: Jabari Bird scored 24 points to lead the way offensively as Cal moved to 15-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. Oregon simply did not have any answers for the Golden Bears, who shot nearly 56 percent from the field and racked up 27 second-chance points and 46 points in the paint. As a result the top seven teams in the Pac-12 are separated by a total of two games. So how does Cal go about ensuring that they don’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday? By doing something that’s proven to be far easier said than done for them this season.

Temple 63, UConn 58: With six minutes remaining UConn held a 12-point lead and appeared poised to pick up a win in Philadelphia. Things didn’t play out that way however, as Temple closed the game on a 21-4 run to pick up a much-needed win for their NCAA tournament hopes and move to 9-3 in the American. Quenton DeCosey scored 23 points and Daniel Dingle 15 for the Owls, who are now 6-0 on the season against the other top teams in the American (UConn, Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa).

Syracuse 85, Florida State 72: The Orange opened the second half on a 13-1 run, grabbing control of a key game between teams looking to add quality wins to their NCAA tournament résumés. Michael Gbinije scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Malachi Richardson added 17, six board, five assists and three steals for the Orange. Devon Bookert led four Seminoles in double figures with 15 points, but FSU shot just 8-for-26 from three against the Syracuse zone.

STARRED

Rokas Gustys, Hofstra: Gustys racked up 25 points and 15 rebounds in Hofstra’s 86-80 win at William & Mary.

Matt Harris, UMass-Lowell: Harris scored 33 points, shooting 10-for-15 from the field, in the RiverHawks’ 108-95 overtime win at Maine.

Jabari Bird, California: Bird scored 24 points, shooting 9-for-14 from the field, in the Golden Bears’ blowout win over No. 11 Oregon.

Nick Emery, BYU: Emery scored 37 points in the Cougars’ 114-89 win at San Francisco, shooting 10-for-12 from three.

STRUGGLED

Chattanooga: The Mocs committed 26 turnovers in their 67-61 loss at Western Carolina.

James McGee, Southern Utah: McGee shot 2-for-10 from the field, scoring six points in the Thunderbirds’ 86-53 loss at Montana.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UMass knocked off VCU 69-63 in Amherst, dropping the Rams a game behind Dayton in the Atlantic 10 standings.
  • Matt Tiby accounted for 24 points and 11 rebounds and Jordan Johnson added 14 points and ten assists as Milwaukee won 93-85 at Oakland.
  • James Madison picked up an important 56-52 win at Charleston, but leading scorer Ron Curry left the game with a knee injury. His status moving forward will be of great importance to the Dukes.
  • Jacksonville fell short in its quest to grab sole possession of first in the A-Sun, as they lost 93-92 at Lipscomb.
  • High Point won at Coastal Carolina, beating the Chanticleers 68-67. Adam Weary led a balanced offensive effort for the Panthers with 13 points.
  • Stony Brook extended its win streak to 17 straight games with a 75-52 win at UMBC. Jameel Warney finished the game with 22 points and seven rebounds.
  • Western Carolina handed Chattanooga its second loss in SoCon play, beating the Mocs 67-61. Torrior Brummitt finished with 16 points and ten rebounds for the Catamounts.
  • Charlotte scored 66 second half points in a 102-73 win over Rice. Mark Price’s 49ers shot especially well from three, connecting on 17 of their 29 attempts.
  • There’a a two-way tie atop the Northeast Conference, as both Saint Francis (PA) and Fairleigh Dickinson picked up wins Thursday night. Wagner, which entered the night tied for first, lost at LIU Brooklyn 82-69.
  • UAB won for the 18th time in their last 19 games but they had to work hard for it, beating Southern Miss 80-77 in double overtime. Chris Cokley accounted for 17 points and 13 rebounds off the bench for the Blazers.
  • Montana State shot an incredible 25-for-43 from beyond the arc in a 101-58 win over Northern Arizona.
  • Montana (10-2) and Weber State (9-2) remain atop the Big Sky standings, as both picked up comfortable home wins Thursday night. While the Grizzlies blew out Southern Utah 86-53, Weber State beat Sacramento State 63-50.