Belmont Returns to the Big Dance After a Year Away

Posted by David Changas on March 8th, 2015

There has been much discussion this season about the lack of scoring in college basketball and what needs to be done to fix the issue. It is a bit ironic, then, that the first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament was earned on a Saturday night when Belmont won a fast-paced back-and-forth shootout in Nashville over Murray State to take the OVC Championship and return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. The 88-87 game featured a combined 26 made three-pointers and 12 lead changes, the last of which came when Belmont’s Taylor Barnette made a fall-away three with 3.2 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner. It was a thrilling finish to a thrilling tournament in which the final three games were decided by a total of five points.

Belmont can celebrate another return to the NCAA Tournament  (USA Today Images)

Belmont can celebrate another return to the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

At the end of the day, though, a familiar face left with the hardware. Belmont lost in last year’s OVC championship game to Eastern Kentucky, but it had avenged that loss on Friday night to reach the final. Unlike last year, though, the Bruins were not expected to earn the league’s automatic bid. Murray State came into Saturday riding a 25-game winning streak, rolling through OVC play with a perfect 16-0 record. Though it is widely believed that the Racers now have no realistic shot at an at-large bid, they feature a future NBA guard in Cameron Payne who averages over 20 points and five assists per game. Belmont coach Rick Byrd knew that pulling off this upset would be a tall order. “I was prepared to say I’m proud to say we made eight of 10 conference championship games over the past 10 years, and at halftime I was really prepared to say something like that, because the last 10 minutes of the first half, it looked like men and boys,” Byrd said after the game, referring to a dominant 30-10 run the Racers put together over the last 10:06 of the first frame.

And while Byrd’s comments cannot be classified as grandstanding or poor-mouthing — Murray State was the more athletic and talented team — no one who has followed Byrd’s career is surprised he found a way to get to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in the last decade. He is in his 29th season at the school, and although it only moved to NCAA Division I in 1996, the 61-year old has long been considered one of the game’s absolute gems. He has never gotten (or perhaps taken) a shot in coaching at a higher level, but what he has done with a program that did not join a conference until 2001 is nothing short of remarkable.

All that is missing on Byrd’s resume is to earn an elusive win in the NCAA Tournament. His teams have come close on occasion — most famously in 2008 when they fell just one point short against Duke — but the Bruins have never been able to get over the hump. This team may not be the one to get the job done either, but it has far exceeded Byrd’s expectations. After going 11-5 in OVC play and not winning a regular season championship for the first time in six years, Byrd did not think this would be a NCAA Tournament team. “This one is special because I didn’t expect our team to be able to do it. We are just so young. We just weren’t as good a team all year long, but we did have a chance to improve, and we have improved,” he said.

Regardless of how they got to this point, Byrd will certainly take it. The Bruins are likely to be a #14 or #15 seed next Sunday and almost certainly will struggle to match the athleticism of the opponent they draw. They don’t have a significant amount of size, and even though they outrebounded Murray State thanks largely to the efforts of 6’6″ sophomore Evan Bradds, they will be outmanned inside by nearly any team they face. But as they showed on Saturday evening against the Racers, it is never a wise idea to count a Rick Byrd team out, and maybe this time, when it’s least expected, it will be the year Belmont finally breaks through in the Big Dance.

David Changas (166 Posts)

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