If the NCAA Tournament committee is listening, Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd has a request.
“I have a daughter who lives in Tulsa. That is probably not on the top of everybody’s list but I would love for her to come and see the games,” Byrd said Monday. “Other than that, we all say — and mean it — as coaches, wherever they want to send us, we are glad to be there.”
When the 68-team field is unveiled this Sunday, Belmont will be in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in school history and first time since a three-year run from 2006-08.
The Bruins got there in dominant fashion. They rolled past North Florida 87-46 in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship game on Saturday.
“That team Saturday was as ready to go and play well as any team I’ve ever had,” Byrd said. “It was a tough week in terms of when you go down and expectations are high. Your own expectations are high. Other people’s expectations are high. Everybody says you are easily the favorite to win. Even more than that, you’ve got a great year going and the one way to mess up the great year is to not go to the NCAA Tournament.”
Belmont had very few blemishes this year — in conference or out of the A-Sun. The Bruins are 30-4, with losses to rival Lipscomb and tournament bound (most likely) Tennessee (twice) and Vanderbilt. They went 19-1 in regular-season conference play.
In the A-Sun tournament, they shook off a slow start against Kennesaw State in the first round and they muscled their way to an eight-point win against host Mercer in the semifinals.
That set up a championship game against sixth-seeded North Florida that was one-sided from the start. Junior Mick Hedgepeth tied a career-high with 23 points and nine rebounds and was named the tournament MVP. Sophomore Ian Clark and senior Jordan Campbell were also named to the all-tournament team as Belmont’s depth — the Bruins have 11 players who average at least 10 minutes — once again overwhelmed their competition.
Now they will have nearly two weeks off before they open the tournament on either March 17 or 18. Byrd said it will be a good change from a hectic A-Sun schedule that saw as many as three games a week.
It will also give them plenty of time to hear about how they are a team to keep an eye on. Belmont earned national attention in 2008 when, as a No. 15 seed, it almost knocked off Duke in the first round. This year the Bruins might not be as much of a surprise.
In his latest Bracketology projection, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has them as a 12th seed playing fifth-seeded Xavier out of the Atlantic-10. A 5-12 matchup could favor Belmont, as that pairing has produced numerous first-round upsets in recent years.
“Who is to say that on that night, that the four or five seed is not going to be as good as the two seed we played the first three times? It is going to be a demanding, tough game,” Byrd said. “That is the other down side to this week off. This is all fun — then all of a sudden reality will set in Sunday night when they announce who we play and it is going to be a really good team.”
Belmont’s opponent is going to get a really good team, too.
The Bruins have a RPI of 50 and received votes from either the Associated Press or ESPN/USA Today national polls for eight straight weeks. They showed all season that they belong to be in the conversation to get a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
Now they’ll get the chance to prove they belong and to achieve another school first — winning a tournament game.
“The goal now is to know that we have a chance to win the game,” Byrd said. “For three years in the NCAA Tournament, we hoped we had a chance to win. I still think it is a lot to say that anybody should expect Belmont to win this game — whoever it is. But the guys that go on the floor for us will be expecting to win.”