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.”

Louisville campus police reviewing escort allegations

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Louisville campus police now say they are reviewing allegations that a former men’s basketball staffer hired escorts to dance and have sex with recruits and players in a dormitory.

Katina Powell has alleged in a book released online over the weekend that former Cardinals director of basketball operation Andre McGee paid her $10,000 for dancers to perform 22 shows from 2010-14 at the players’ Billy Minardi Hall dormitory. The school reported those allegations to the NCAA and has launched an investigation.

“The University of Louisville Police Department, in consultation with the Louisville Metro Police Department and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, is reviewing allegations regarding the men’s basketball program,” University police chief Wayne Hall said Tuesday in a statement.

It was the first confirmation that police are looking into the allegations. When contacted last week, a campus police operator said they weren’t aware of the book allegations, and it was unclear at that time if an investigation had been launched.

Cardinals coach Rick Pitino has said that McGee denied Powell’s allegations.

McGee left in 2014 and is currently an assistant at Missouri-Kansas City, which has put him on paid leave.

Pitino said Saturday that he hasn’t read Powell’s book titled “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen” and doesn’t plan to. The 104-page book was published by an affiliate of the Indianapolis Business Journal and is scheduled for hardcover release Oct. 12.

The woman said that she and three of her daughters, along with other women, danced and stripped for Louisville recruits and players and performed sex acts with them, according to the book. Powell, 43, also said McGee offered recruits alcohol at those parties.

Upon hearing of the allegations, Pitino said he did some investigating on his own before being told by the school’s compliance department not to talk to players. But the coach said he talked to other assistants about the allegations and all of them denied knowing of the activities outlined in Powell’s book.

“I’m going through 15 people who worked here, and not one person even had a premonition of something wrong,” Pitino said. “Not one person living in the dorm had even the slightest premonition. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Louisville has hired Chuck Smrt of the Compliance Group, which assists schools in NCAA cases, to review the allegations.

McGee left Louisville in 2014 to become an assistant at Missouri-Kansas City under Kareem Richardson, who was a Cardinals assistant from 2012-13. He was placed on paid administrative on Friday and has been unavailable for comment. McGee’s Louisville attorney, Scott Cox, didn’t comment because the investigation is ongoing.

St. John’s hires Mitch Richmond as a special assistant

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St. John’s added its second Hall of Famer to the coaching staff on Tuesday, announcing Mitch Richmond had been hired as a special assistant to first-year head coach Chris Mullin.

Mullin and Richmond, along with Tim Hardaway, made up Run TMC, the short-lived, high-scoring offense the Golden State Warriors played from 1989-91.

Mullin was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 2011. Three years later, he was a presenter to Richmond’s enshrinement in Springfield.

“Mitch is committed to helping us build this program and develop an environment for sustained success at St. John’s,” Mullin said in a statement. “He has tremendous basketball insight, a vision for the game and a passion to share his knowledge. Obviously, his experience in different roles throughout his career as a player, scout and mentor will have an impact in many areas.”

Earlier this summer, Mullin bolstered his coaching staff with the additions of associate head coach Barry Rohrssen and Matt Abdelmassih. Greg St. Jean was hired later in the summer.

The Red Storm open the 2015-16 season on Nov. 13 against Wagner.