Belmont could be an NCAA tournament Cinderella — if it gets the chance

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“We’d built up certain expectations with our success,” he said this week. “I’d gotten to the point where winning was a relief and losing was misery.” He paused. “Actually, worrying about losing had become miserable. I’d come to dread game day. That’s not the way it should be.”

Casey Alexander played for Byrd at Belmont for four years — and was the starting point guard on an NAIA Final Four team in 1995, his senior season. He went to work for Byrd as a student assistant and stayed 16 years before getting his first head coaching job in 2011 at Stetson. Two years later, he was back in Nashville, coaching at Lipscomb, which is two miles from Belmont.

“We live a long par 5 away from each other now,” Byrd said, using a golf term because there are few things he loves in life more than playing and talking about golf.

Byrd plays more golf these days, but he still spends plenty of time watching his old team. Alexander, after winning 23 and 29 games in his past two seasons at Lipscomb, now sits in his mentor’s chair and hasn’t missed a beat after taking over for a legend.

The Bruins were 26-7 last season and won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament that was never played because of the coronavirus pandemic. This season, they are 22-1 — the only loss coming to Samford in early December — and should be a lock to play in the NCAA tournament next month.

“You know, early in the season all we heard was that a lot of the usual criteria would be shelved because of covid,” Alexander said. “We weren’t going to hear as much about Quad 1 wins and NET and strength of schedule. Now it’s February, and it looks like all of that is going to be in play just like any other season.”

That worries both Alexander and Byrd. They both know the NCAA tournament committee’s recent track record when it comes to handing out mid-major at-large bids. More often than not, a school that goes .500 in a power conference gets the benefit of the doubt over a 25-plus-win mid-major team.

“The way to avoid any concern is to win the conference tournament,” Alexander said. “We did that last year; we need to do it again this year. Then we can just worry about seeding.”

In a twist, Byrd’s last Belmont team got one of those rare mid-major at-large bids in 2019 when the power-conference bubble fell apart late, leaving all the bracketologists in shock. Belmont was sent to Dayton for the First Four, where it beat Temple, before it lost to Maryland, 79-77, less than 40 hours later.

Byrd, now 67, knew as he walked off the court that day in Jacksonville, Fla., that he had just coached his last game. He had decided before the season to retire but did not want a farewell tour. “I told my staff, my president and my athletic director and my wife,” he said. “During the season I told Casey because I wanted him to think about possibly succeeding me. He was the only one not directly in my inner circle that I told.”

There were only two candidates to succeed Byrd: Alexander and Brian Ayers, another longtime Byrd assistant. Alexander’s success at Lipscomb was probably the tiebreaker. Ayers and Alexander had worked together under Byrd, and Ayers has remained on staff as Alexander’s top assistant.

That sort of stability — Ayers is now in his 23d season at Belmont — has been a key to the program’s long-term success. The school rarely takes transfers or loses them; the last junior college player in the program was 20 years ago.

Two key seniors graduated off Byrd’s final team, but there were also two freshman starters: 6-foot-11 center Nick Muszynski and point guard Grayson Murphy. “One reason I felt comfortable leaving was I knew we had some good young players in the program,” Byrd said.

Muszynski is now a junior who averages 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds a game and gives the Bruins a low-post presence that few college programs have. He is one of five players averaging double figures on a team that scores 83.3 points per game. The fifth player on that list is Murphy, who averages 10.4 points per game.

“But he’s our MVP,” Alexander said. “[Muszynski] would be the first one to tell you that.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Byrd said. “He does absolutely everything at both ends of the court.”

At 6-2, Murphy leads the team in rebounding at 7.8 per game and assists at 5.3. He also averages 2.3 steals per game, shoots 62 percent from the field and was the Ohio Valley’s defensive player of the year last season.

Murphy, who grew up in Franklin, Tenn., about 20 miles from Nashville, narrowed his college decision to Belmont or Lipscomb before choosing Belmont. “Probably the most difficult ‘no,’ call I’ve ever gotten from a recruit,” Alexander said. “I think Rick and I both knew he had a chance to be special. Little did I know he’d end up being special and I’d get to coach him.”

The Bruins have solid young depth, but only Luke Smith, a guard who transferred two years ago from Division III Sewanee, averages more than 30 minutes a game. Byrd always tried to make sure his team wasn’t worn out come February and March, and Alexander has been able to do the same — especially because most of Belmont’s games have been blowouts.

Which is where the concern about potentially needing an at-large bid comes into play.

“We had a great schedule before covid,” Alexander said. “We were supposed to play in Orlando with Gonzaga, Michigan State, Auburn, Saint Louis, Boise State and Xavier. We were also supposed to go to USC, but that got canceled, too. We had to scramble to get any games we could. That changed our strength of schedule considerably.”

Relying on the committee to use the so-called “eye test” is risky. After all, the Loyola Chicago team that made the Final Four in 2018 would not have made the field if it hadn’t won its conference tournament.

Because the Bruins haven’t played any big-name teams and because perennial OVC powers Murray State and Austin Peay are having relatively down seasons, Belmont hasn’t attracted much national attention. The Bruins have slowly crept up in the Associated Press’s “also receiving votes” category and are 28th this week. The school has never cracked the top 25 since joining Division I.

But it had never won an NCAA tournament game before the win over Temple. Now it has an experienced, deep, confident team that both the current and former coach think could do something special in March — as long as the Bruins get the chance that they very much deserve.

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