Belmont coach Rick Byrd can't remember the moment he realized his team could be special, that it could win 30 games and blaze through its conference, emerging as a bracketbuster in March.
He is pretty sure, however, that the moment came sometime in the first week of fall practice. Before then he'd seen only flashes, impressive individual workouts that pointed to future success. But once he got all of his players on the court together, with backups interchangeable with starters and presumed benchwarmers ready to contribute -- that's when all sorts of possibilities opened up.
Go 11 players deep? Yeah, they could go 11 players deep. Flood the court with three-point shooters? They definitely had the personnel for that. The Bruins, Byrd realized, could go big or they could go small; they could suffocate you with the press or wear you down in the half-court; and on offense, they had grinders and bombers and to-the-rack slashers, an abundance of players who could change the course of a game.
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"Within the first 10 days of practice, we saw that so many of our guys were evenly matched," says Byrd, whose team qualified for the NCAA tournament with an 87-46 thrashing of North Florida in the Atlantic Sun championship game on Sunday. "It made sense to embrace that, to get everybody on the court."
The result: 30 wins, runaway titles in the Atlantic Sun regular season and tournament, and now, as they prepare for their fourth NCAA appearance in six years, a buzz as one of the potential double-digit seeds who could wreck everyone's bracket. The Bruins have done it by playing 11 players between 10 and 25 minutes a game, with no one indispensable but everyone making a contribution. They press -- relentlessly -- and they shuffle lineups and styles of play enough to leave opponents confused.
Aside from a Jan. 25 loss at crosstown rival Lipscomb, each of Belmont's losses came on the road against SEC teams currently projected to make the field of 68. Belmont lost twice at Tennessee (85-76 and 66-65) and once at Vanderbilt, 85-76.
"They've certainly played us as well as anybody at the mid-major level," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said after the Vols' second win over the Bruins. "I'll do everything I can not to schedule them again."
The Bruins run a crisp inside-out offense, with big men Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders drawing double teams to free up shooters outside. And when the Bruins' shooters are open, they're deadly. Belmont ranks 34th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com, and the Bruins are 13th in effective field goal percentage and 31st in three-point percentage (four Belmont players shoot better than 39 percent from three). But the key to Belmont's success comes from creating extra possessions, both on the boards and with defensive pressure. Belmont ranks 13th in offensive rebounding percentage and second in turnovers forced per possession.
And that, Byrd and his players believe, comes from the team's depth.
"You can play harder, knowing that you're going to get some rest," says Hedgepeth, the team's leading rebounder (6.0 rpg) and second-leading scorer (10.6 ppg). "You don't have to pace yourself, because your legs don't get as tired as when you play more minutes."
Three of Belmont's top five scorers -- Saunders and guards Jordan Campbell and Kerron Johnson -- come off the bench.
"The first team gets in there, and they get everything started," Johnson says. "They wear them down, then we come in and finish them off."
In practices, there is no first team or second team. Byrd divides his players differently each day -- some in red jerseys, others in blue -- so that various combinations build cohesion on the floor.
"When you mix and match, you have to get used to everybody," Johnson said. "You know how to play with a smaller lineup or a bigger lineup and how to play against a smaller lineup or a bigger lineup, so there's never a surprise."
But despite its Atlantic Sun dominance and penchant for scaring in-state SEC foes, Belmont lacks a signature win. And for the Bruins to earn that win in the tournament, they'll need to avoid the turnovers and defensive breakdowns that doomed them against the Commodores and Vols.
"We have to be more poised," says guard Ian Clark, who leads the team with 12.4 points and 24.6 minutes per game. "Just knowing each other, knowing what to expect from each other down the stretch."
In 2008, a 15th-seeded Belmont squad nearly earned the school's first tournament win, eventually falling 71-70 to No. 2 seed Duke. This year's edition features several players who chose Belmont, in part, because of what they saw in that game.
"I saw what this program was doing," Johnson said. "I wanted to be a part of that."
Next week, he could be a part of something bigger.