J.J. Mann's journey from scholarship bubble to buzzer beater
In a sport where recruiting can be an inexact science of brief impressions, the best stories of stardom tend to involve players who were once, on some level, unwanted. And the best story about Belmont's J.J. Mann, who stunned North Carolina on Sunday by scoring 11 points in the final 2:22 of an 83-80 upset -- including the go-ahead three with 13.1 seconds left -- is not that the son of two former ACC players was wanted by zero ACC teams.
That part is true -- John and Teresa Mann both played at Georgia Tech in the late 1970s and early '80s, and J.J. didn't receive any major-conference scholarship offers -- but not exactly surprising. J.J. Mann graduated from Marist High in Atlanta when he was just 17, and he was a 6-foot-6 small forward with an unorthodox offensive skills. He had to take a post-grad year at Hargrave Military Academy in 2009-10 to generate even fringe Division I interest, from schools such as Air Force, the Citadel, Colgate and Belmont.
The best story about Mann, who had a career-high 28 points against the 12th-ranked Tar Heels in the best win in Belmont basketball history, is that Belmont's players didn't even want him, at first.
In the fall of 2009, Bruins coach Rick Byrd was debating how he should fill one open scholarship. He's patient about making formal offers -- "If we do anything good here," he said, "it's that we take our time to decide who we bring into the program" -- and values his players' input about recruits. Mann visited from Hargrave that October and loved Belmont, but he was exhausted from the after-effects of the flu, and he completely misjudged the point of the pickup games he got invited to after practice. "I didn't think it was a live-or-die situation," he said in a 2011 interview with SI. "I was trying to befriend the guys, and I wasn't in a condition to do anything special. ... About a year later, they told me, 'We thought you were cool, but we thought you might have been the worst basketball player we've ever seen.'"
Drew Hanlen, a combo guard who was with the Bruins from 2008-2012, recalled that after seeing Mann play pickup, "Everyone on the team went back to [Byrd] and said, 'No way, coach. He's not good enough.'" They preferred a power forward whom Byrd had brought in for an earlier visit; that kid had impressed the Bruins in pickup and was thought to be the frontrunner for the scholarship.
Byrd came back two days later to say he'd taken Mann. (The coach declined to name the other recruit, out of respect, only saying that he never received a D-I scholarship.) "It was the only time I can remember that coach went against us," Hanlen said. "He said, 'I'm sorry, guys. I hear what you're saying, but I've got a gut feeling that J.J. is the better player for us. He's going to be good enough.'"
Byrd, who's won 574 games in 28 years at Belmont, overruled them because he'd seen a different version of Mann. Earlier that fall, Byrd went to Hargrave on a tip from a friend at Colgate, who had pursued Mann but given up once he expressed no interest in going North -- or to the military schools that were recruiting him. "I was nearly ready to take the other kid," Byrd said, "Then I saw J.J. all over the floor; he had a way of always being in the right place to make things happen. He was a good shooter -- I'm not sure if I thought he was a great shooter, because he had a funny little hitch -- but he was a very good shooter. And also, once you've been around him, you realize that he wants to win everything, even if you play him in Ping-Pong, he finds a way to win. That's an intangible that's hard to measure in recruiting."
Mann did not take long to change his new teammates' minds. He played well enough off the bench to be named to the Atlantic Sun's all-freshman team in '10-11 and served as the Bruins' sixth man in '11-12. He started every game as a junior, was one of four players to average double-digit points (10.5 per game), and was second on the team in rebounding (4.7) and assists (2.5). He attends so many games of the Bruins' other athletic teams -- from men's soccer to women's volleyball -- that he earned the nickname Mr. Belmont.
When Mr. Belmont walked into the Dean Dome on Sunday, he was feeling optimistic. His only other trip there came in February 2010, when his Hargrave team traveled from Virginia to play North Carolina's JV squad and then take in a UNC-NC State varsity game. Hargrave won 102-95 and Mann, who had signed with Belmont four months earlier, played well. "I think I scored in the low 20s," he said, "so my mindset coming in the second time was, 'I've put up 20 in this gym before, and I'm going to try to do it again.'"
That seemed unrealistic, and not just because Mann entered Sunday having shot 1-of-16 from long range on the season. He estimated that there were only 100 people in the stands for that game against the JV, as opposed to the 15,205 reported for Sunday. Scoring against Carolina's diminutive JV players was also easier. "If you put a bunch of steroids in them, add 6-7 inches of height, and 12-13 inches on the vertical, then they'd look like the guys we played [Sunday]," he said. "[James Michael] McAdoo has about as close to an NBA body as you're going to see in college."
McAdoo, Carolina's junior power forward, put most of the Belmont team in foul trouble, earning 19 free-throw attempts en route to scoring 27 points. His layup with 2:37 left put the Tar Heels up 78-70, and their win probability at that point was near 99 percent, according to kenpom.com.
Mann started Belmont's improbable rally with two free throws, and then a three on a set play from point guard Reece Chamberlain. Mann's next three came on a smart backcut read after McAdoo jumped up to prevent a dribble-handoff, and Chamberlain slipped a bounce pass behind him to the right wing. The dagger, with 13.1 seconds left and the score 80-78 in UNC's favor, was delivered on a play Belmont called "trailer pitch" -- a simple pitch-back from Chamberlain, who brought the ball up, to Mann, who looped behind him from the right wing. Mann caught it and rose up quickly, showing none of the hitch that bothered some of his earlier long-range attempts, and drilled the biggest shot of his life.
He finished with a career-high 28 points, and said afterwards, "I guess [Byrd's] overrule was the right decision -- at least for today." Byrd's initial scouting assessment turned out to be pretty accurate: Good, not great shooter. Always in the right place. Finds a way to win.