March 13, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- When the Belmont Bruins showed up in the NCAA’s Southeast bracket opposite Wisconsin it struck an immediate chord with the UW’s junior point guard Jordan Taylor. "I have a friend who’s going there for music school, he wants to be a producer-artist," he said.
Music is big business on the Nashville, Tenn. campus of Belmont University; the alma matter of popular artists like Brad Paisley, Lee Ann Womack and Trisha Yearwood. All five members of Cowboy Crush, a country music band, attended Belmont, which sports an undergraduate enrollment of 4,643.
Taylor’s teammate, senior Jon Leuer, had a different frame of reference for the Bruins. "I remember seeing some of their highlights when they played Tennessee this season," Leuer said. "Being a fan of college basketball, I’ve also seen them in the tournament brackets in the past."
Three years ago – Leuer’s freshman season – the Badgers drew Cal State Fullerton in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Belmont was also in the field; a No. 15 seed matched against Duke. And the Bruins came within seconds of making the sweetest music of all by upsetting the No. 2 seeded Devils.
Belmont had a 70-69 lead and the ball with 48 seconds left. Working the clock, the Bruins wanted to set up a high percentage shot but Gerald Henderson had other plans. Henderson knocked the ball loose and converted the steal into a basket at the other end with 11.9 seconds remaining.
Duke hung on for a 71-70 victory at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
During his post-game press conference, Belmont coach Rick Byrd talked about how being "oh so close" to putting his school on the map – only to lose by one point – took an emotional toll on his players. "You need to go in and talk to those kids who are crying (in the locker room)," he said.
After the Belmont players showered and dressed, they returned to the arena. The second game was under way but once the Bruins were spotted, the crowd responded with a standing ovation in recognition of their effort and gritty play. Jordan Campbell, then a freshman, called it “spine-tingling.’’
The heart-breaking loss marked Belmont’s third-straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. In 2006, the Bruins were beaten 78-44 by UCLA which went on to lose in the championship finals to Florida. In 2007, the Bruins were beaten 80-55 by Georgetown which made it to the Final Four.
Belmont is baaaaack – back in the Big Dance.
Byrd is baaaaack, too – punctuating his 25th season at Belmont with another NCAA trip.
In 30 years overall as a head coach, Byrd has 610 career wins – 30 this season.
The Bruins have lost only four times – to Tennessee (twice), Vanderbilt and Lipscomb.
Both of their losses to the Volunteers came at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. In mid-November, Tennessee held off a late rally for an 85-76 win. In late December, the Vols needed a Scott Hopson layup with 5.7 seconds remaining to beat the Bruins, 66-65.
"They certainly have played us as well as anybody at the mid-major level," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said afterward. "I will do everything I can to try not to schedule them again."
Belmont beat North Florida by 41 points to win the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. In posting a 19-1 league record, the Bruins averaged 80.4 points per game. They not only led the A-Sun in 13 statistical categories but they lead the nation in scoring margin (18.4 points).
What do Ian Clark, Mick Hedgepeth, Scott Saunders, Jordan Campbell, Kerron Johnson, Drew Hanlen, J.J. Mann, Jon House, Trevor Noack, Blake Jenkins, and Brandon Baker have in common?
That would be Belmont’s "playing" rotation – 11 deep.
Nobody averages more than 24.6 minutes.
All 11 average 10 minutes or more.
Eight different players have led Belmont in scoring.
Clark is the leading scorer with a 12.4 average.
Explaining his deep rotation, Byrd told the Nashville Tennessean, "I could give you the first five picks off our team. And somebody else could take the second five picks. And it would be a toss-up game. With that kind of balance, you play more players."
In the A-Sun title game, he substituted 59 times.
The Bruins share minutes and confidence. When Clark was asked about a potential matchup with a BCS program in the NCAA tournament, he said, "They might be bigger and stronger. But the one thing we’ve got to bank on is that we’re going to out-think them and outwork them."
Success breeds confidence.
Belmont and Kansas are the only programs to win 12 or more conference games each of the past nine seasons. Since 2006, the Bruins have won seven league championships (three tournament, four regular season). Only Kansas, Gonzaga and Memphis have won more crowns over that span.
Since transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division I, the Bruins have made the fourth-most 3-point field goals in the nation since 1996. Campbell (74 triples) and Clark (72) are the leaders, but they have six players with 20 or more 3-pointers. As a team, they’re shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.
Insiders believe this Belmont team is better than the Georgia State team that represented the league (then the Trans-Atlantic Athletic Conference) in the 2001 NCAA tournament. Georgia State, coached by Lefty Driesell, won its first round game, 50-49, over Wisconsin.
Belmont has already become the trendy pick among the national pundits.
That’s Ok with the Badgers.
"We have to focus on what we can control," Taylor said.
"The main thing is to focus on ourselves and what we do well," Leuer said.