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.

Oklahoma State dismisses three players from the program

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Oklahoma State announced on Wednesday that they have dismissed Michael Weathers, Maurice Calloo and Kentrevious Jones from the program due to a violation of team rules.

“We have a standard of behavior that we expect from everyone in our program,,” head coach Mike Boynton said in a statement, “and we’re going to move forward with the people who want to abide by those standards. I wish the others well as they move on.”

Weathers is the biggest loss. He is a sophomore guard that was averaging 9.2 points on the season. Calloo (2.5 ppg) and Jones (1.3 ppg), both freshmen forwards, were bit players that saw limited minutes in their first year in Stillwater.

No. 15 Marquette beats Georgetown after Markus Howard leaves with injury

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Marquette got a career performance from Sam Hauser and won a Big East road game Tuesday, but the Golden Eagles’ 74-71 win against Georgetown came with a caveat.

Markus Howard, the nation’s fourth leading scorer, played just three minutes before bowing out with a back injury.

“He’s been experiencing some low back soreness,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said after the game, per The Associated Press. “I’m not going to put a guy out there unless he’s 100%.”

Hauser shined offensively for Marquette with Howard unable to carry the load. The sophomore scored 31 points in the victory. It was the Golden Eagles’ defense, though, that got them to the finish line. Marquette blocked two go-ahead attempts by Georgetown freshman guard James Akinjo in the final 15 seconds, with the first coming from Brendan Bailey and the second courtesy of Theo John.

Now, though, attention will turn to the health of Howard, who is averaging 25.8 points per game and is a week removed from dropping 53 points on Creighton. Marquette does have a pair of home games upcoming against Providence and DePaul, so the Golden Eagles do have some fortuitous timing in their favor, but if Howard is sidelined for an extended period of time or the back is an issue all season, that’s going to be a significant issue.

Little, No. 13 North Carolina hold off Notre Dame 75-69

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Once Nassir Little got rolling, No. 13 North Carolina didn’t have to worry much about yet another home loss.

Little scored all 11 of his points in the final 11 minutes, and the Tar Heels beat Notre Dame 75-69 on Tuesday night.

“It was just a matter of time,” Little said. “Everybody was just waiting for me to do what I do, to help the team be as good as we can be.”

Coby White had 17 points while Luke Maye added 14 points and 10 rebounds and Cameron Johnson finished with 11 points for the Tar Heels (13-4, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference). UNC used a late 12-1 run to bounce back from its most lopsided home loss under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams.

“I got my wish — I wanted to win one ugly,” Williams said.

Prentiss Hubb scored 18 points, John Mooney had 16 points and 19 rebounds, and D.J. Harvey added 15 points for the Fighting Irish (11-6, 1-3). Hubb put Notre Dame up 58-57 with a layup with just under seven minutes remaining, but the Irish missed their next six shots while North Carolina took control.

“Everything was just right for us,” coach Mike Brey said. “We just needed a few more plays, and we probably needed another scorer.”

White started the key run with a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down with 6½ minutes to play, and Little, a freshman, ended it with a twisting layup on the break that gave the Tar Heels their first double-figure lead, 69-59, with less than 90 seconds left.

The Irish didn’t get closer than seven until Hubb’s 3 with 4.7 seconds left made it 73-69.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have lost three of four to begin conference play and haven’t cracked the 70s in scoring in any of those games. They aren’t afraid to pull the trigger from 3-point range — no team in the ACC has taken more of them this season, and roughly half their shots in this one were from beyond the arc — but they didn’t quite hit enough of them to pull off the upset: Notre Dame was just 4 of 15 from long range in the second half.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels will hear less about that embarrassing 83-62 loss to Louisville. They also haven’t lost three straight home ACC games in nearly a decade. Perhaps the most encouraging sign: They had only two turnovers in the second half.

STAR WATCH

T.J. Gibbs, who averages a team-best 18.5 points for Notre Dame, was held to five points on 1-of-9 shooting in his return after an illness that forced him to miss a game for the first time in his career. “My trainer said, ‘You can’t play him as usual, 35 minutes, because he’s ill,'” Brey said. “And then I played him 35 minutes, because he was our only option. … We need to kind of get him back to 100 percent by Saturday.”

PLAY OF THE NIGHT

Seventh Woods earned some hustle points for his blocked shot that brought the crowd to its feet with about 12 minutes left. Nate Laszewski was headed for an easy open-court dunk after stealing the ball from Johnson. But Woods raced in to block the attempt at the rim.

BATTLE ON THE BOARDS

The ACC’s top two rebounders — Maye (10.1 rpg) and Mooney (9.8) — went at it in this one. Those two combined for 29 of the 83 total rebounds in the game.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Plays host to No. 17 North Carolina State on Saturday.

North Carolina: Visits Miami on Saturday.

Tuesday’s Three Things To Know: It was a surprisingly wild night in college hoops

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While Golden State was busy putting up 50 points in a quarter, the college basketball world had themselves a wild night that featured a pair of top 25 teams winning in the final seconds, some big dogs rolling and a couple of trendy teams taking ugly losses.

Here is what you need to know from Tuesday night:

1. THE BIG BOYS ROLLED

The biggest game of the night ended up being one of the most boring games of the night, as No. 4 Virginia put away No. 9 Virginia Tech before we reached the under eight media timeout. The Wahoos hit nine of their first 11 threes, finished 13-for-24 from beyond the arc on the evening and took a 44-22 lead into halftime, eventually knocking off the Hokies, 81-59. It was an utterly dominant performance from Tony Bennett’s club, and one that had our Travis Hines convincing himself that this is the year for UVA.

The Cavs weren’t the only big dog to handle their business in impressive fashion on Tuesday. No. 3 Tennessee jumped out to a 23-6 lead on Arkansas and never looked back, beating the Razorbacks 106-87 in a game where the Vols never seemed to get out of third gear. While that was happening, No. 12 Kentucky was in the midst of going into Stegeman Coliseum and dropping a hammer on Georgia, 69-49. Ashton Hagans — who was previously committed to the Bulldogs — put a career-high 23 points on the board.

And lastly, while the Tar Heels didn’t run away with this win, they did manage to hold off Notre Dame, 75-69. This win was notable because of the second half performance from Nassir Little. He scored just 11 points, but all of them came in the final 11 minutes, and he had nine in a 14-6 run that turned a deficit into a 65-58 lead.

2. SAM HAUSER SAVES No. 15 MARQUETTE, No. 17 N.C. STATE IS NOT SO LUCKY

Hauser put up a career-high 31 points to go along with eight boards in a 74-71 win at Georgetown as he was forced into point guard duties as Markus Howard was dealing with a lower back issue and Joseph Chartouny has apparently forgotten how to be a point guard. The Hoyas are not exactly a powerhouse these days, but they are a dangerous team offensively that has won some games we did not expect them to win, and going into Washington D.C. and winning this game without the Big East Player of the Year is, frankly, really impressive.

And important.

The Golden Eagles remain the only team that is one game behind Villanova in the Big East regular season title race.

N.C. State was not as fortunate. Playing without starting point guard Markell Johnson, the Wolf Pack found themselves down by 15 points at the half and by as many as 22 points in the second half at Wake Forest. A 29-7 run tied the game at 58 with about seven minutes left in the game, but Wake Forest did enough down the stretch to get the win, 71-67.

This is not a great loss for N.C. State, who has now lost two of their last three games and no longer looks like a top 25 basketball team.

3. THE OLE MISS HYPE TRAIN DERAILS

The trendy team this week was Ole Miss, and deservedly so — in the span of 96 hours, they beat No. 11 Auburn by 15 points and went into Starkville and picked off No. 14 Mississippi State. They were 13-2 on the season and 3-0 in the SEC at that point. They deserved to be trendy.

And it all came crashing down with a visit from LSU. Tremont Waters scored 20 points and added nine assists as the Tigers knocked off No. 18 Ole Miss, 83-69, in Oxford. Now 3-0 in the league, it may be time that we start looking at LSU as the new Ole Miss.

AND I NEED TO MENTION …

That a pair of top 25 teams survived at the last second. In Starkville, Mississippi State survived Florida, 71-68, thanks to a three-point play from Quinndary Weatherspoon with 3.6 seconds left on the clock. And out in Boise, No. 10 Nevada knocked off Boise State, 72-71, thanks to a three with 4.5 seconds left from Cody Martin, who had not made a three since Dec. 15th and was shooting 19.5 percent from beyond the arc entering the night.

LSU cruises past No. 18 Ole Miss 83-69; 3-0 in SEC

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OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Tremont Waters scored 20 points, Kavell Bigby-Williams had 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, and LSU beat No. 18 Mississippi 83-69 on Tuesday night.

LSU (13-3, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) used an early 8-0 run in the second half to take a 48-39 lead. The Tigers maintained a healthy advantage from that point, playing tight defense and forcing several turnovers.

Waters also had nine assists, and Skylar Mays scored 14 points. LSU has won six straight.

Ole Miss (13-3, 3-1) had its 10-game winning streak snapped. The Rebels hadn’t lost since Nov. 24, when they fell 71-57 to Cincinnati. Terence Davis led the Rebels with 21 points and 10 rebounds. K.J. Buffen added 13 points.

Neither team played particularly well in the first half, with LSU and Ole Miss both shooting 36 percent from the field. Tyree had 12 points before the break, and the teams went into halftime tied at 31.

BIG PICTURE

LSU: It’s another good win for LSU, which has quietly established itself as one of the SEC’s elite teams. The Tigers are extremely athletic in the post and should cause problems for plenty of teams around the league.

Ole Miss: The Rebels were probably due for some sort of regression and struggled in their return to the national rankings for the first time since 2013. They didn’t play very well offensively, and their 16 turnovers were particularly costly. Ole Miss will still take its 3-1 league start, but a big home game against Arkansas looms on Saturday.

UP NEXT

LSU returns home and hosts South Carolina on Saturday.

Ole Miss hosts Arkansas on Saturday.