The above picture is of Belmont Head Coach Rick Byrd. He is smiling because not only is he taking the Belmont Bruins to their fifth NCAA Tournament berth since 2006, but because he has his Bruins on a red-hot 14 game winning streak heading into the Big Dance.
A Look Back At The Season
Belmont almost did what the Byrd Cage predicted back in its first post in November against Duke at their home opener in Cameron indoors. The Crazies were almost left silent by Coach Byrd’s disciplined team that didn’t get its head down all game, and came back from a significant deficit in what is, arguably, the hardest place in college athletics to sustain confidence and control the game. The game was ultimately lost by one point, and everyone pointed to the Bruins as being “for real” and all those sports qualities that the talking heads give sports teams they ultimately do not know anything about. But the Bruins had their chance to prove themselves four days later in Memphis, only to lose by 16 points.
Still waiting for that “signature” win, the Bruin faithful kept in good spirits heading into conference play, and looking to get some quality wins from non-conference opponents on the national level. Playing at MTSU twice, the Bruins played a Blue Raider team that looked to be the best in their history, and split the series 1-1. After a quality handling of future OVC foe Tennessee State University, the Bruins arrived at Miami of Ohio on December 17 with a record of 10-3, the respectable losses to Duke, Memphis, and MTSU in Murfreesboro. The team had confidence, their fans expecting another 30 win season, and their opponents largely expecting a whole heck of a lot from every match-up.
But it wasn’t as easy as everyone thought, and the magic season started to get a little messy. Belmont dropped two in a row at Miami of Ohio and Marshall. The Bruins limped back to Clarksville with a win against struggling future OVC opponent Austin Peay on December 21st and had Christmas to think about what they did. Who were the Bruins? What happened to that 30 win season we were all expecting? A few more wins got the Bruins back in the flow— moving to squash their rival in the the Battle of the Boulevard, a sold-out rivalry game to a struggling Lipscomb team. But the Bisons had different ideas and had 6 of their players were in double-digits, giving the Bruins a thorough wake-up call after a beating 85-74.
It was time to get worried. Dropping another game to USC Upstate, the Bruins nursed a 13-7 overall record toward the end of January. There was a major flaw somewhere in all this basketball, and if anyone could change things around and get this team playing to its full potential, it was Coach Byrd. On January 23, 2012, Coach Byrd made a decision that would change the season for the Bruins. Starting Blake Jenkins against ETSU that night to defend 6-6 senior guard Adam Sollazzo, the Bruins had a new life injected into the team. Winning 14 straight, it is hard to over emphasize the way the team has responded to the injection of Jenkins’ play (You can read our breakdown on “The Blake Jenkins Effect” here).
A lot has happened since ETSU that January night for Belmont. The Bruins are now ranked in the top offensively in the nation, Ken Pomeroy has Belmont ranked 25th overall, and Mid-Major Top 25 has Belmont ranked 15th. The Bruins go into the Madness with one of the top winning streaks in the NCAA and have an awful lot of coaches hoping the Selection Committee doesn’t choose that music school from Nashville come Sunday.
Belmont received the highest seed in their history last year at 13, and faced a number 4 Wisconsin team that many members of the sports media picked to be upset by the 30-4 Bruins. But the Badgers were too much under the basket for the Bruins, and our 3-point shooting just wasn’t working. The Bruins’ tournament dreams were crushed under a score of 72-58. Badger Coach Bo Ryan’s mixture of stalwart big men and tempo change, moved the game from Belmont’s usual high level of possessions to a creeping slow pace.
What seed will Belmont receive this year? That is a story that will have to wait for Sunday to break, but we can speculate. Many of the “experts” have Belmont at a 14 seed this year. As of right now, CBS has us playing number 3 seed Michigan at the Columbus, Ohio tournament site. Other 3 seeds are Baylor, Georgetown, and Marquette.
The Byrd Cage will have you covered on all previews as the week progresses. Be sure to follow us on twitter via @BelmontByrdCage and “Like” us on Facebook for all your Belmont basketball needs.