TUCSON, Ariz. -- Rick Byrd was doing his best to talk himself out of admitting the obvious: Belmont is the cherry bomb in the urinal; spiked punch at an AA meeting; a nail in the tire at 70 mph.
Annoying, possibly dangerous. Definitely a trendy pick to upset fourth-seeded Wisconsin Thursday in the Tucson pod. Let the poor-mouthing begin.
"We couldn't out-recruit Wisconsin for a single player if we wanted them," said Byrd, Belmont's coach for the last quarter century.
Yeah, but this is college basketball where what you recruit to is sometimes more important than who you recruit. The first question they ask you at Wisconsin is, "How many screens can you fight through?" The first question they ask recruits at Belmont is, "Do you know where we are?"
OK, just playing, but there are few more intriguing opening-round NCAA tournament games. Belmont is a low major in Nashville with an enrollment of 5,900. The winning basketball qualifies it to be this year's Butler. Same values, same kind of underrated players, same kind of soft-spoken coaches who grind you into the ground with their teams.
"He and I are really good friends," Byrd said of Butler's Brad Stevens. "Our programs are very similar in terms of our values, not similar in terms of being nationally competitive. If that question is about, can we make any kind of a run, who knows? Murray State almost beat Butler in the second round last year."
And we all know how Butler's run ended up.
Wisconsin -- a Big Ten power in its 13th consecutive NCAA tournament -- has been warned. Belmont's buzz lingers from three years ago. A one-point loss to second-seeded Duke in 2008 showed these unheralded Bruins could play. That's not a large sample size but enough of one for Bo Ryan to know the potential embarrassment.
Belmont isn't a brand name which is the ultimate danger for BCS programs. Byrd took a few looks around during the preseason and realized he had no stars. A lot of good players, no great ones. So he decided to roll out hockey lines. Eleven players average at least 10 minutes per game. No one averages more than 25. Against North Florida in the Atlantic Sun title game, Byrd substituted 59 times. They shoot a lot of threes (making the second-most per game nationally, 9.4). Eight different players have led the Bruins in scoring.
The style is not a gimmick, it's a blueprint. In a game of pickup you couldn't tell the first five guys from the second five guys. That's why Byrd did it. Belmont and Pittsburgh are the only two teams in the nation without a double-digit loss. Only Long Island has a longer winning streak (13 games vs. Belmont's 12). Understandably, no one in the country has a more productive bench (40.6 points per game).
|If there is such a thing as a star for the Belmont Bruins, it's sharpshooting Ian Clark. (US Presswire)|
In the end it seems the Bruins are always fresh, always a threat, always that cherry bomb ready to go off. The only thing is, so far, the plumbing has stayed intact. Belmont has yet to break through. It has, though, been that flower that has poked through cracks in the concrete to get on the national radar.
Don't worry about it being intimidated. Wisconsin did just lose a game in which it scored 33 points against Penn State. Since 2005-06, only six other teams have been better away from home than the Bruins. During that time Belmont has 74 road/neutral wins. It has lost once since Christmas. The other three defeats came to Vanderbilt and Tennessee (twice).
"Our numbers haven't come against Big Ten teams," Byrd said. "We're dealing with a different universe."
Tell the Vols, who beat Belmont by one and Vandy, which trailed at the half. Otherwise, the Bruins have rolled in the lightly regarded Atlantic Sun against the likes of Campbell, Kennesaw State and Stetson. At the end of the season the Bruins were getting votes in the AP poll, among only a handful of non-BCS programs to do so. This is its fourth NCAA tournament in six years.
"We're less starry eyed," Byrd finally admitted. "We also realize that on a given night ..."
Now we're getting somewhere. Belmont seemingly never had a chance against the program's first three NCAA tournament opponents. UCLA, Georgetown and Duke had a combined 16 national championships. Belmont has four American Idol finalists. It has the love of Nashville, which has taken to the Bruins. Country star Vince Gill is a huge booster. The school has an accredited music business program. The campus hosted a presidential debate in 2008.
But let's face it, a bullet to the heart of Wisconsin would mean more than any of those bullet points. Byrd has been at Belmont as long as Jim Calhoun has been at UConn. How many coaches that entrenched would have the ingenuity to take his team and turn it into NHL penalty-killing unit that wears you down?
"Some coaches have a certain system and preconceived plan for substituting. I don't," Byrd told reporters last week. "What if a guy hits four straight 3-pointers? Are you going to stick with your plan and sub for him? I'm going to keep him in the game and get him the ball."
In these days of rampant corruption, Belmont is a team for the people. At least the people who believe that kids ought to go to class once in a while. There have been 11 straight years of a 3.0 team GPA or higher. Since 2001, no school has had more academic All-Americans (nine).
"We don't fight any battles with guys not going to class," Byrd said. "We don't have [class] checkers. ... They're real college students and want to be there. When you have a team full of guys like that it kind of creates a culture to make good grades. I really do think that's helped us have a better basketball team."
Byrd doesn't exactly ignore the AAU circuit and is right there in July with the rest of the coaches in Las Vegas at the July meat-market camps.
"You have to do those things to have a chance to evaluate players," Byrd said. "You can't fail to utilize July to evaluate."
But, he adds, Belmont searches for a certain kind of player, one who looks good "in hotels and airports and restaurants." One who isn't married to his earphones. One who can, "have a discussion between two human beings, occasionally."
"I am," Byrd said, "a dinosaur."
The dangerous kind.