The bond between Rick Byrd and Casey Alexander crosses rivalry lines

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There may not be a rivalry in all of college basketball more unique than the Battle of the Boulevard, which pits Belmont against Lipscomb, two schools that are located all of 2.7 miles apart on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, TN.

It dates back to 1953, and over the course of the last 60 years, the two programs have squared off more than 130 times despite the fact that there was a seven-year hiatus in the late-’90s and early-’00s. But to get an idea of just what this rivalry means to Bruin and Bison fans, all you need to know is the story of their matchup on Feb. 17th, 1990.

At the time, Lipscomb was a powerhouse in the NAIA, winning national titles and helping Don Meyer collect 665 of his 923 career wins. In 1989, they were 38-1 heading into the league tournament when an upstart Belmont program, coached by Rick Byrd, upset the Bisons and kept them out of the NAIA national tournament. The following season, with both programs sitting in the top five of the NAIA rankings with a combined record of 27-1, Belmont was asked to move their home game to Memorial Gym on Vanderbilt’s campus because of the demand for tickets.

15,399 fans packed inside Memorial Gym. More than 16,000 tickets were sold. The fire marshall shut the doors, banning ticket holders from entering.

All for a regular season NAIA game.

That attendance number is still a record.

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Casey Alexander was at that game at Memorial Gym. He was a senior in high school, and one of his teammates was already committed to Belmont. They had a game that night, but hopped in a car immediately after the buzzer sounds — still in their uniforms — and caught the final seven minutes of the 124-107 Lipscomb win.

Alexander would eventually commit to Belmont as well. He played for four years, lettering in each season, before becoming a member of Byrd’s staff upon graduation. He became the associate head coach in 2002 and had completed a full two decades as a member of the Belmont program before taking over as head coach at Stetson prior to the 2011-2012 season.

He’s a member of the Belmont Hall of Fame, and even played a pivotal role in what ended up being the most important move as a basketball program.

“Casey played a large role in our move from the NAIA to Division I,” Byrd said by phone on Sunday afternoon, “I’ve said it often that he pulled me and pushed me into that era. We had a good thing, and I was pretty happy coaching from October to March and getting to play golf in the summer. You can’t do that as easily in Division I.”

Outside of Byrd, there is no one that is more Belmont more than Alexander.

So you can imagine the reaction on Sunday when Alexander was officially named the new head coach at Lipscomb.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “That’s the way that I feel and the way that I’m approaching this mission.”

“He contacted me very early on about the job and said he was interested,” Philip Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s athletic director and a former all-american for the Bisons, said with a laugh. “I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t know’ as I was thinking about his resume a little bit. I thought this’ll be interesting.”

Steve Wojciechowski played for four seasons at Duke, winning ACC titles and earning accolades like Honorable Mention All-America and National Defensive Player of the Year, before joining the Duke staff two years after graduating. Since then, he’s become the associate head coach, been on staff for two runs to the national title and emerged as a contender to replace Mike Krzyzewski if and when he finally decides to retire.

Now imagine if Wojo was named Roy Williams’ replacement as head coach at North Carolina.

For the folks around Belmont and Lipscomb, that’s the kind of surprise that this hire has elicited.

“[They] were very similar players,” Byrd said. “Casey was an NAIA player, he couldn’t have done at Duke what Wojciechowski did, but their roles as leaders and tough little guards were very, very similar.”

“I’m sure Casey was pretty easy to dislike from the Lipscomb point of view.”

What would college-aged Casey have said had you told him he’d be coaching Lipscomb in 2013?

“I think he would have been as much in shock as most people were when they heard he’s going to be now. It’s just unusual,” Byrd said with a laugh.

And that’s what makes this rivalry so unique. Lipscomb may have hesitated in hiring Alexander — their coaching search went on for 40 days — but they ended up bringing in a guy that was probably the best fit for their program.

It’s inarguable that the Bruins have overshadowed the Bisons in recent years. They’ve been to six NCAA tournaments in the past eight seasons. They won the Atlantic Sun regular season title in five of their last seven years in the league (finishing second the other two) before getting an invitation to the stronger Ohio Valley Conference prior to last season. The Bruins won the OVC last year as well.

Lipscomb? Well, they made the 2006 NIT and lost in the first round.

No one knows the ins-and-outs of Belmont’s blueprint for success like Alexander. In a city where sports are secondary to music and food, college basketball isn’t the most important sport, and there are already two nationally relevant college hoops teams, a mid-major program like Lipscomb needs to think outside the box when making a hire.

That’s precisely what they did.

If you can’t beat ’em and you can’t join ’em, you might as well try to replicate ’em. And in all actuality, the similarity between the two programs is one of the things that attracted Alexander to the job.

“The truth is all that I liked about Belmont is the reason that I wanted to be at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “They’re very similar. I think we can do the same things. I think I can be myself, I can coach the way that I want and I can coach the kind of people that I want. There aren’t that many places that are like that. It’s a pretty unique environment and it’s the one that I wanted to be in.”

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When Alexander stepped to the podium at his introductory press conference, the first people he recognized and thanked were his family. His wife, his kids, his parents, his in-laws. Everyone. And after thanking his new bosses and recognizing those that gave him this opportunity, Alexander proceeded to thank the man that set him on this career path.

“Outside of those that share [my DNA], there’s not one person anywhere that’s made me more the man I am today than Rick Byrd,” Alexander said, while choking up. Byrd crossed enemy lines to attend and support his former player and assistant coach. There are few coaches in the country that are as universally respected as Byrd is, and one of the reasons for that is his unconditional support for former members of the program. It doesn’t matter why someone wants to leave or where they want to go, Byrd is going to help them follow through.

Even if it means watching one of his protégés take over his program’s biggest rival.

“When I first started talking to him about this job,” Alexander said, “you can imagine it was probably like a lot of you, a lot of raised eyebrows and so forth. But it took one conversation, literally, for him to forget where it was and who it was. Because all he cares about is what’s best for the people that he has worked with.”

The way Alexander tells it, playing Belmont as the coach at Lipscomb will be easier for him than playing Belmont during his first season at Stetson. It was the first basketball season since he was in high school that he wasn’t a member of the Bruins in one form or another, and he had literally recruited every player on the Bruin team.

It’s a tough sell, however; Alexander’s very first game on the Lipscomb sideline will come against Belmont.

For Byrd, having Alexander on the opposite bench will actually make the rivalry more tolerable.

“People that know me know that I haven’t really enjoyed the rivalry,” Byrd said. “It’s hard to enjoy it because it means so much to people on our side and their side.”

“But I really think with Casey there it’s almost going to be easier for me. I like to compete and coach against guys that I think have the kind of class that Casey has. Those are the people I respect. I don’t like to lose to anybody, but I’d much rather lose to folks that I think are going about it in a proper way.”

Byrd can be confident that Alexander will be one of those people.

That’s what he spent 20 years teaching Alexander to do.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Four-star guard Tyrell Jones commits to Auburn

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Auburn landed its fifth verbal pledge in the Class of 2019 Tuesday evening, as four-star combo guard Tyrell Jones announced his commitment. The 6-foot-1 Jones, who currently attends West Oaks Academy in Orlando and played for the Showtime Ballers program on the adidas Uprising circuit, took his official visit to Auburn in mid-September.

https://twitter.com/nebexantus/status/1052366104075661314/video/1

Jones is one of three four-star commits in Auburn’s 2019 class to date, with wings Allen Flanigan and Jaylin Williams being the others, and guard Isaac Okoro and forward Babatunde Akingbola round out the quintet.

During Bruce Pearl’s rebuild at Auburn the program’s had multiple perimeter players who can create off the dribble, opening things up for themselves and their teammates, and Jones fits the mold. At minimum Auburn will have to account for the loss of senior guard Bryce Brown after the upcoming season, with junior guards Jared Harper, Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick all being upperclassmen as well.

Add in senior wing Malik Dunbar and junior Danjel Purifoy, and Auburn has six perimeter upperclassmen on the current roster. The 2019 recruiting class will go a long way towards bolstering that area of the program, with regards to both depth and talent.

Recruitment of Zion Williamson discussed during Tuesday’s FBI trial proceedings

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The trial focused on James Gatto, Merl Code Jr. and Christian Dawkins continued Tuesday, and the biggest news out of New York City focused on information that attorneys were not allowed to use in building their case. As a result, the information was discussed before jurors entered the courtroom for Tuesday’s session.

The name of Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson was mentioned for the first time, by way of the transcript of a phone conversation between Code and current Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend that was read by defense attorney (representing Code) Mark Moore.

Per the transcript, Code and Townsend discussed the recruitment of Williamson, with Code saying that the prospect’s father was asking for “opportunities from an occupational perspective,” money and housing in exchange for his son’s commitment.

Moore would go on to read Townsend’s response per the transcript, with the coach being recorded saying that “so, I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way. Because if that’s what it takes to get him for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.”

Due to the lack of context to the conversation, this evidence cannot be used by either the prosecution or defense in the case. That being said the recorded transcript doesn’t match the testimony of T.J. Gassnola, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in late April and is working as a federal witness as part of the plea.

Gassnola testified that neither Townsend nor Kansas head coach Bill Self knew anything of any payments being made to prospects or their families in exchange for their commitment to Kansas, one of the adidas brand’s most important college partners.

Two other names mentioned on Tuesday were those of LSU head coach Will Wade and four-star 2019 prospect Balsa Koprivica. The transcript of the conversation between Wade and Christian Dawkins, which according to Gatto attorney Casey Donnelly included the head coach saying that “I can get you what you need but it’s got to work” regarding the recruitment of Koprivica, was not admitted as evidence due to the fact that none of the defendants are being charged for any activity involving Wade, LSU or Koprivica.

The Brian Bowen recruitment was also discussed during the session prior to the jury’s arrival, with attorneys reading a transcript of a conversation between Bowen Sr. and Dawkins in which the former said that he favored Michigan State for his son. Bowen Sr. told Dawkins that Michigan State hadn’t offered anything for his son’s commitment, but that never happened since Bowen Jr. did not want to go to Michigan State. He ultimately landed at Louisville, with his pledge coming just days after an alleged payment of $100,000 was agreed upon.

This case has seemingly focused on the question of what laws/rules the trio of Gatto, Code and Dawkins have broken. The prosecution has argued that the they’ve broken federal laws (in addition to NCAA rules) as the prosecution has argued, with the defense arguing that they haven’t broken federal laws but instead ran afoul of NCAA rules on behalf of the coaches they worked with. Beyond what the jury ultimately decides, there’s also the matter of what the NCAA could do to the programs and coaches mentioned during the trial.

One day after Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that he felt this current scandal was nothing more than a “blip” on the radar of the sport, a member of his highly-regarded freshman class was mentioned in the courtroom.

While there’s no telling where this will all end, and how the cases will impact college basketball moving forward regardless of the verdicts to come, this trial feels like more than just a blip.

Boston College and Seton Hall schedule charity exhibition for October 27

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Tuesday afternoon Boston College and Seton Hall announced that its basketball programs will play an exhibition on October 27 at Conte Forum. Volunteers will be accepting donations from those in attendance, and the proceeds will be sent to the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh to help with hurricane relief efforts.

In recent years the NCAA has allowed Division I programs to substitute an exhibition game — usually played against a Division II or III team — for a charity exhibition against another Division I school.

While Seton Hall will have a second exhibition, a home game against New Haven scheduled for November 9, this will be Boston College’s lone preseason contest before it begins regular season play on November 6 against Milwaukee.

Both teams lost some significant contributors at the end of the 2017-18 season, with Seton Hall bidding farewell to a four-member senior class that led the program to three straight NCAA tournament berths and Boston College moving on without first-round draft pick Jerome Robinson.

But there are some talented players for head coaches Kevin Willard and Jim Christian to work with as well, with guard Myles Powell back for his junior season at Seton Hall and Ky Bowman and Jordan Chatman among the returnees at Boston College.

Jury concludes hearing evidence at college basketball trial

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NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City jury is done hearing testimony at a federal trial about secret payments in college basketball.

Prosecutors have accused a former Adidas executive and two other defendants of conspiring to funnel funds to the families of prized prospects to get them to commit to programs sponsored by the sneaker company. They’ve all pleaded not guilty.

Government evidence on Tuesday focused a flurry of texts and phone calls last year about prospect Brian Bowen Jr. before he committed to Louisville, an Adidas school.

In one text, then-Louisville coach Rick Pitino expressed interest in Bowen. But there was no clear sign the legendary coach knew about an alleged scheme to give the player’s father $100,000 in violation of NCAA rules.

Closing arguments were expected to begin Wednesday afternoon.

College Basketball’s Breakout Stars

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

One of my favorite things to do heading into each season is to put together a list of the players that are primed to become breakout stars.

Sometimes, these players are painfully obvious — Hi, Carsen Edwards.

Other, these players take a year to reach their full breakout potential — Hey, Mikal Bridges — at the expense of their painfully obvious teammate — Hello, Donte DiVincenzo.

There are players that shock the world when they become an All-American (Luke Maye, Bryce Brown), some that shouldn’t have actually surprised us when they turned out to be awesome (Keita Bates-Diop) and still others where all the dots connected but the stars never quite aligned (VJ King).

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here is the list.

Feel free to drop me a note here (or on twitter) yelling at me over who I missed.



ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova

Paschall is hardly an unknown name at this point in his career. A fifth-year senior that was a double-figure scorer for Villanova’s national title team a season ago, Paschall popped off for 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting in the win over Kansas in last year’s national semifinal, and if it wasn’t for Donte DiVincenzo turning himself into a lottery pick with a 31-point explosion off the bench in the title game, he would have been one of the great out-of-nowhere stories in recent Final Four history.

Except he’s not really out of nowhere. Paschall averaged 15.9 points as a freshman at Fordham before heading to Villanova where, during their run to the 2016 national title, he lost more than 20 pounds, streamlining his body and fine-tuning his athleticism and jumper to the point where he is an ideal fit as a role player in the modern NBA. For me, he’s a top 20 pick, and I think that will come out this year. It’s important to remember two things here: Paschall is a terrific defender with the athleticism to guard down and the size to guard up, and while he shot just 35.6 percent from three last season, he made 35 of his final 76 threes (46.1 percent) after starting his junior season 1-for-25.

I think he turns into an all-american for the Wildcats this year, following in the footsteps of Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges before him. Buy stock now.

DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

I am the conductor of the De’Andre Hunter hype train. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and the versatility to defend multiple positions while possessing the discipline that is inherent in playing under Tony Bennett for three years, my money is on Hunter becoming an all-american this year.

I’ve said this before, but I think the reason that UMBC was able to upset Virginia last season was due to the fact that Hunter was not there. Without Hunter, the Wahoos could not defend a team that played with four guards. There was more to it than that — UMBC played out of their minds, UVA choked — but what let it get to the point where UVA was in a position to choke was that they couldn’t get stops. Hunter is the piece that will allow them to play that way, and oh-by-the-way, he will be their best one-on-one scorer this season.

The question now becomes whether or not UVA has the guards to let him play the four, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

PJ WASHINGTON, Kentucky

This Kentucky team is one that is hard to figure, as they run just about two-deep at every spot on the floor without a clear delineation between who is the best at a given position and who should be coming off the bench.

That’s certainly true up front, where Reid Travis, Nick Richards and Washington are all putting together preseasons that, in a vacuum, should earn them a starting spot, but for my money I think that Washington ends up being the best of that group, and probably the best player on this Kentucky team.

CHRIS LYKES, Miami

Jim Larrañaga’s best teams have come when he has a clearly defined star at the point guard spot. It happened with Shane Larkin in 2013, when they won the ACC, and it happened with Angel Rodriguez in 2016, when they finished second in the ACC. I think it will happen again this season, as 5-foot-7 dynamo Chris Lykes looked primed to takeover a backcourt that had all the talent and even more question marks last season.

The big issue that Miami dealt with was that they just didn’t have the shooters to be able to create spacing. Lonnie Walker was inconsistent while Bruce Brown and JaQuan Newton weren’t shooters. They struggled with who was supposed to play what role and where they were going to get shots. It was only after Brown went down for the year with a wrist injury that Lykes stepped up. He scored in double-figures in nine of the final 12 games, including 19 points against UVA and 18 points and four assists in a win at North Carolina.

The backcourt will be his this season, and around him will be a trio of guys that can shoot the cover off of the ball with a monster in the middle in Dewan Hernandez. I’m not sure if this team will be able to stop anyone, but they are going to be an efficient team scoring the ball.

JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Someone is going to have to score some points for Michigan this season as the Wolverines lost their three-best offensive weapons — Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. Poole seems as likely as anyone to takeover that go-to guy role. He certainly likes to shoot, as he managed to average 6.0 points in just over 12 minutes with the highest shot rate of anyone returning this offseason.

I’m not sure if he’ll be Michigan’s leading scorer — my money is still on Charles Matthews for that role — but John Beilein has proven that he has the ability to make skilled offensive players effective at the Big Ten level, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Poole is the next in that line.

MITCH BALLOCK, Creighton

There are going to be a lot of shots opening up for Creighton this year, as Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas are both off to the NBA, and I fully expect Ballock to soak up plenty of those opportunities. A 6-foot-5 guard from Kansas that picked the Bluejays over the Jayhawks, Ballock showed flashes during his freshman season of being the next Creighton star. He finished the year averaging just 7.3 points while shooting 32.6 percent from three, but those numbers will be heading up this year. Another former four-star recruit, Ty-Shon Alexander, is eligible for this list as well.

Chris Lykes (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

HERB JONES, Alabama

Jones might end up being one of the guys that we end up being a year too early on. A 6-foot-6 lead guard with terrific measureables and defensive instincts, he’s going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season as the Crimson Tide look to replace the production they lose with Collin Sexton turning pro. He may be a better fit at the NBA level than in college.

MJ WALKER, Florida State

Walker is a former five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American that spent last season playing off the bench for the Seminoles. With Braian Angola off to the professional ranks, Walker is going to be one of the guys tasked with taking over his role offensively. He’s a talented scorer with big-time athleticism — he was a high major recruit as a wide receiver — that will play an important role for a team that looks like they could finished fourth in the ACC.

CANE BROOME, Cincinnati

Cincinnati lost three of their best players off of last year’s team, and that is not going to be easy to replace. But someone is going to have to. Jarron Cumberland is the guy that’s going to end up being Cincinnati’s leading scorer, and there is some talk that he could end up being an all-american-caliber player, but I think the guy more deserving to be on this list is Broome.

A former Sacred Heart Pioneer, Broome averaged 23 points before transferring to Cincinnati. After redshirting the 2016-17 season, Broome played as more of a distributor last season, but that’s not what he’s best at. He’s a bucket-getter, and with the lack of scoring pop on this roster along with the fact that senior point guard Justin Jenifer is still around, I think Broome ends up averaging north of 15 points this season.

NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker had some one-and-done buzz heading into last season, but the cousin of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a bit of an up-and-down freshman season. He ended up averaging 10.5 points, but he did not shoot the ball as well as he needed and he was less of a playmaker than many expected him to be. Still, he’s a talented player on a Virginia Tech team that is going to need their sophomore class to take a step forward if they want to live up to their hype this season.

MYLES CALE, Seton Hall

Cale is a guy that I loved in the high school ranks. At 6-foot-5, he has the kind of size and athleticism that should let him be a perfect wing in the Big East. With everything that Seton Hall lost this offseason — Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Ishmael Sanogo — they are going to need someone to pick up the slack, and there’s only so much more than Myles Powell can do.

BRANDON RANDOLPH, Arizona

The big issue that Arizona faces this season is that the FBI investigation into college basketball torpedoed their recruiting. They were not able to go out and replace Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins with pieces that will be able to impact the program immediately, so they are going to have to promote from within. Randolph was a four-star prospect in high school that played on the same high school team as Mo Bamba. Is this the year the shackles come off and he can show what he can do?

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Eastern at this point is probably best-known for being the guy that declared for the draft after averaging 2.9 points as a freshman. But he’s also a 6-foot-6 guard that will see a ton of minutes next to Carsen Edwards as the Boilermakers try to replace four starters off of last season’s roster.