Can Belmont Break Through?
The campus of Belmont University, in Nashville, is a place where God, the entertainment industry and Division I athletics curiously intersect. At its men's basketball home opener this season, a minister led the crowd in prayer ("Lord, we thank your name for everything ...") prior to the national anthem, and a close friend of head coach Rick Byrd, the country music star Vince Gill, was given an honorary degree in a halftime ceremony. The same halftime show also included musical-theater students performing a dance number, and associate professor Mark Volman, a one-time member of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and a founder of the Turtles, leading the crowd in a sing-along of his 1967 hit, Happy Together. Belmont's sparkling arena, the Curb Events Center, is attached to its school of entertainment and music business, as well as a cafe in which music majors often appear at open mics. The Bruins hoopsters are but one part of the show, and they're still waiting for their big break.
On Friday in Columbus, Ohio, Belmont will make its fifth NCAA tournament appearance since 2006, facing Georgetown as a No. 14 seed in the Midwest Regional. Byrd has yet to win an NCAA tournament game, but he has presided over 545 victories in 26 seasons at the school, and is the one who shepherded the program from NAIA to D-I in 1996, then developed it into one of the preeminent mid-majors in the South. Previously, Belmont was famous as a launching pad for the careers of country music stars Brad Paisley, Le Ann Womack and Trisha Yearwood, and it has slowly tried to reconcile its position as a "Christian University" with the societal norms of modern entertainment and sports, breaking from the ultra-conservative Tennessee Baptist Convention, changing its nickname from Rebels to Bruins, and in 2010, adding "sexual orientation" to its non-discrimination policy in the wake of a national scandal in which its women's soccer coach was fired after coming out to her team.
Belmont formed in 1951 as a merger of two women's schools in Nashville, one of which, Ward's Seminary, was actually progressive for its time: In 1898, after founding the first women's basketball team in the South, its Ducks -- who were forced to hoop in long sleeves and bloomers -- declared their breakthrough with a defensive cheer:
Hippety huss! Hippety huss!
What in the world the matter with us?
Nothing at all, nothing at all--
We are the girls who play basket ball.
Their schedule consisted of two games -- a win over Normal and a loss to Vanderbilt, with the score printed in their yearbook, The Iris, as 0-2*. The asterisk is for "disputed," because the Ward's women believed the referee missed a foul call. The loss stung so much that they penned a 40-line poem about it in The Iris. In the annals of this school, end-of-season laments run deep.
On Feb. 25, Belmont clinched its fifth Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season title in the past seven years, and shortly thereafter, its entire starting backcourt -- senior Drew Hanlen and juniors Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark -- pulled off the unprecedented feat of being named first-team all-league. After this season the Bruins are leaving for the Ohio Valley Conference, the domain of the nation's most-hyped mid-major, Murray State, and they believe they can end their run of NCAA tournament losses before making that jump. "Everyone inside the locker room," Johnson says, "feels like this is the year."
It was four years ago, almost to the day, that the nation met Belmont -- and then suffered with Belmont. To the chagrin of many viewers on March 17, 2008, CBS allocated its national feed to Duke's 2-vs.-15 game against the Bruins, who'd been blown out by Georgetown and UCLA in their previous two trips to the NCAAs, also as a No. 15 seed. To the shock and delight of almost everyone, Belmont led the game by a point with just over two minutes left. Given the Duke brand and the fact that a seismic, 16-over-1 event has never occurred, it had the chance to be one of the best tourney upsets of all time. "It might have been the best," Byrd said. "You'd be talked about forever."
It was not meant to be. The Bruins failed to score another basket, gave up a transition layup to Gerald Henderson in the final minute, and lost by one. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski called it the most stressful NCAA tournament game of his career, but Belmont's heartbreak was worse than K's anxiety. It was Belmont's moment, perhaps a once-in-a-program moment, and it got away.
What happens if the Bruins win? For 15 minutes, they were America's team, and then in a flash, they were a footnote. Byrd does not like to play that what-if game, but he does have the NCAA-issued "BELMONT LOCKER ROOM" sign from that game at Washington's Verizon Center on the wall of his office, right above his computer monitor. He sees it every day; someone mentions the game to him every week; and he often runs though the last few possessions in his head, "Thinking," he says, "about what I might have done differently."
Had they won, would Byrd be wearing his signature sweater-vest on a different sideline? Lucrative offers from higher-profile schools would have been thrown at the Coach Who Upset Duke. Where Byrd remains, though, may be the place that suits him best. Within 15 minutes after a Belmont winning its home opener over Trevecca Nazarene in November, with no media throng waiting to interview him, he was able to grab his coat, jump in his car and make it to The Station Inn, a venerable Nashville dive, in time to catch half of Gill's first set with The Time Jumpers, a bar band specializing in western swing.
Every seat in the joint was taken save for the two marked by a paper plate that had "Vince" written on it in cursive, and under that, "Rick Byrd +1." Byrd and Gill met years ago at a charity golf outing and became fast friends, and Gill, who went straight into the music business out of high school, adopted Belmont as his school and his team. He's a fixture in the first row behind the Bruins' bench, although on this night he booked after halftime to make his gig.
Upon seeing Byrd at setbreak, Gill's first question was, "How'd the second half go?" He lamented that he hadn't been able to make the trip to Duke for the Bruins' season opener, which, just like in 2008, they lost by a single point. Although he has tamed his act a bit, Gill is a notorious heckler of referees. "I used to be worth at least two points on the road," he said, "and six points at home."
Byrd is reluctant to give up the home-court advantage he's built at Belmont. In 2002, before the Bruins were thriving in the A-Sun, he briefly, but seriously, considered jumping to Vanderbilt to take the women's job, where he could have shared a gym with his pal, men's coach Kevin Stallings. This offseason Byrd interviewed for an out-of-town job he might have taken -- at Tennessee, where he played on the JV team during the Ernie Grunfeld era, and before that, watched games from under the press-row table while his father, Ben, covered the Vols for the Knoxville Journal.
UT offered the job to then-Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin instead. Byrd said that the longer he stays in business, the less he's concerned with matters of ego, like validating yourself with a major-conference job. Besides, the Vols spared him the dilemma of whether to leave his Nashville friends behind. On the drive home from the show, Byrd spoke proudly of Gill, whose name hadn't even appeared on The Station Inn's bill that evening: "Here's a guy who's in the Country Music Hall of Fame, who's won more Grammys than any other country musician, and the thing he likes to do most," Byrd said, "is sit in with a band."
Senior guard Drew Hanlen is shooting a team-best 48.1 percent from long range. (David Allio/Icon SMI)
If Belmont basketball were a band, its Behind The Music would be disappointingly drama-free. Byrd's favorite stat about the program is that the Bruins have not had a scholarship player leave since December 2003, a span of eight and a half seasons. In a era where transferring is rampant, that's an remarkable run of contentedness.
Byrd has maintained that streak while also luring in better players. Since that Duke loss in '08, he said, "We've recruited better, from top to bottom" -- and it's helped turn Belmont into an offensive powerhouse that ranks 13th nationally in points per possession. (The '08 team ranked 112th.) The first post-Duke class included their starting center, Mick Hedgepeth, an Alabaman who's the lone Bruin capable of playing country tunes on a guitar, and Hanlen, who's shooting 48.1 percent from long range. As a scrappy high-schooler in St. Louis, he self-published a book of drills called Drew Hanlen's Driveway Dedication, and in the summer before he left for Belmont, incorporated a skill-development business called Pure Sweat Basketball, which he hoped would benefit from him majoring in entrepreneurship.
The silliness of the NCAA rulebook prevents Hanlen from putting his name on Pure Sweat's Web site or even talking about it with the media, since it's a basketball-related company -- "I have to be as careful as possible to not commit violations," he said -- but his venture has been a resounding success despite its anonymity. SI confirmed that Hanlen's clients include two St. Louis products, the Golden State Warriors' David Lee and Florida's Brad Beal, as well as Vanderbilt's John Jenkins. He trains them in the offseason and does matchup-specific film study using Synergy Sports Technology during the season, sending texts and links to video clips. (An example text that Lee received earlier this year, before facing the Knicks: "Last season, when you were mid-post, the fake hand-off/drive middle and fake hand-off/drive middle/spin back both worked twice. [Wilson] Chandler guarded you, but Knicks' tendency is to help on baseline hand-offs.")
Hanlen plans to turn his full attention to training pre-draft prospects once his eligibility expires, but another few days at least, he's focused on the intricacies of a Belmont offense that has carved up the A-Sun during its current, 17-game winning streak. "Coach Byrd has a play for everything," said Hanlen, "and he's amazing at manipulating defenses based on how they switch." Byrd also gives them the freedom to shoot, as 39.9 percent of their attempts come from beyond the arc, and they rank 30th in the nation in three-point percentage, at 38.1. Clark, a high-major prospect who stuck with Belmont despite an offer from Virginia Tech, has attempted the most threes (216, making 40.7 percent), while Hanlen is second with 189. Sophomore J.J. Mann, whom teammates call "Mr. Belmont" due to the fact that he attends every varsity athletic event possible, has attempted 136 threes, making 44, and even Johnson, the lightning-quick heart of their backcourt who does most of his damage off the dribble, has put up 76 treys, making 24.
The problem for the three-dependent Bruins is that the NCAA tournament selection committee may have given them the worst possible second-round matchup in Georgetown, which happens to lead the nation in three-point percentage defense. It's almost as if the committee has it out for Belmont: Last season, when it pressed like mad and was second in the nation in turnovers-forced percentage, it was placed in a 4-13 game against Wisconsin, which had the nation's lowest percentage of turnovers committed. The Badgers took care of the ball, and won by 14.The Bruins appear to be at an equally daunting disadvantage this time around, but as Byrd has learned from spending two and a half decades on a country-music campus, America's next darlings are not always obvious. Yearwood, Womack and Paisley were Belmont students in the early stage of Byrd's career, and he didn't realize he was among them at the time. "You never really know," he said, "who's going to turn out to be big."