NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Belmont University Athletic Media Relations recently caught up with men's basketball head coach Rick Byrd to reflect upon another historic Bruin season.
In its final season in the Atlantic Sun Conference, Belmont went out in style, claiming the league's regular season and tournament championships. All told, the Bruins have won 10 conference championships (5 regular season, 5 tournament) since 2006 - only Kansas (12) has won more conference titles over that span.
Belmont also joined Kansas and Memphis as the only programs in the nation to earn five automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament in the last seven years. Moreover, Belmont joins Gonzaga, Marquette, and Xavier as the lone non-football playing Division I programs to reach the NCAA Tournament five of the last seven years.
Belmont's 57 victories over the past two seasons ranks ninth nationally - and third behind only San Diego State and Brigham Young among non-BCS conference schools.
Belmont was ranked No. 15 in the final 2011-12 Mid-Major Top 25 Poll - the sixth time in the last seven years the Bruins have been ranked at season's end.
Q: It has been a few weeks since the Georgetown game, have you had a chance to decompress from that game? Have your thoughts about that game changed at all since the moments immediately after the game?
A: My thoughts have not changed much. We didn't defend well enough to win against a team that is as good as Georgetown. We simply made too many mistakes of execution (scouting report mistakes, layups on OB plays, switching when we were not supposed to, etc). They surprised me with the amount of zone they played and I should have had us more prepared for that possibility than we were.
Q: Much was made about the team heading into this season – returning a core nucleus of players from the 2010-11 Bruins that won 30 games and reached the NCAA Tournament. How do you think the team handled increased expectations and talk in the media? How big of a part did veteran leadership play into reaching team goals?
A: We had a lot of upperclassmen that played important roles and I think their mentality and serious approach to the game were a large part of our overall success this year. I think that too much is often made of how a team "handles" expectations or pressure. Our guys enjoy playing the game and were always excited to practice or play. Many very good mid-major teams, that won their conference, were not able to also win the conference tournament and advance to the NCAAs. I was proud of our players and their approach to that all important week.
Q: Clearly the start of the season in the EA Sports Maui Invitational was a marquee experience for the program. What did the team gain from playing at Duke and at Memphis – both preseason Top 10 teams? Moreover, how significant was it to win the Regional Games portion of the tournament – the Bruins' first NCAA era regular season tournament championship?
A: You always want to win those kind of games, but I think our performance in the first two games enhanced our program with the exposure that we received in two nationally televised games. To back up those two games with two wins in Murfreesboro and a tournament championship was important to our confidence level at that point in the season.
Q: How would you assess the team's play during the non-conference portion of the schedule? How did the team react to tough road losses during a stretch of December? Did some of the 'What's wrong with Belmont' talk get overblown?
A: I can't speak to the "talk", I rarely hear any of it. I did not do us any favors with five games in ten days, four on the road and quality competition. Two of the three losses (at MTSU and at Marshall) were very close against outstanding teams, nothing to be ashamed of. We did not play well at Miami of Ohio but that is really the only poor performance in that tough stretch of games.
Q: Much has been made about the decision to insert Blake Jenkins into the starting lineup Jan. 23 at ETSU, and that the Bruins ran the table from there. You are on the record as stating that initially the move was more out of a matchup with ETSU than anything else. Yet as the season wore on, what did you and the coaching staff see as positives from starting Blake?
A: Blake improves our team on the defensive end and on the offensive glass. He made better decisions offensively as he gained experience. Hopefully, all of that will pay off in 2012-13.
Q: This year's run in the Atlantic Sun Tournament contrasted past years in that the Bruins confronted much more adversity and deficits en route to the championship. In that sense, was greater pride drawn from having to battle back and play through some challenges this go round?
A: We remind our team often that the game is 40 minutes and not to get too excited about a big early lead or an early deficit. We lost games from a large lead and fought back to win some big games when behind. At tournament time, all that matters is that you find a way to win and advance. I would prefer to play better throughout the game like we have done in past championships, but our league was better than it has been in some time and our opponents had plenty to do with us trailing well into the game.
Q: Have you had a chance to reflect on what the program has accomplished in recent years? Only Belmont, Kansas and Memphis have earned five NCAA Tournament automatic bids the last seven years, and only Belmont, Gonzaga, Marquette and Xavier have reached the NCAA Tournament five of the last seven years among non-football playing schools. That's pretty heady company.
A: I don't spend much time thinking about it, but I think our coaching staff is proud of both our regular season and tournament success the past several years. In the very competitive world of college basketball, you better start thinking ahead pretty quickly and it is important to recruit better and better plays that can help us continue our success on the court and in the classroom.
Q: Can you talk about what Drew, Mick and Scott have meant to the Belmont program? They seem to embody everything you are looking for on and off the court.
A: The remarkable attribute that defines those three young man is selflessness. All three were talented players that could have compiled very impressive individual statistics but shared playing time with other good players to make our team more effective. They are each great students and have won many awards based on their classwork and community service. They are proof that you can win at a high level in division I college basketball with real student athletes of high character.
Q: It is still early, but what can we expect next season? Thoughts on the OVC? How can the team get better? Certainly having an experienced backcourt in Kerron and Ian provides a sound foundation.
A: It is hard to say what the OVC will bring but we are certainly excited about the close rivalries that will begin next year. I think, and hope, that our attendance will increase with all the schools that our fans are familiar with coming to the Curb Event Center. Certainly our guard play should continue to be good, the challenge will be inside at both the four and five spot. The improvement of players like Brandon Baker, Trevor Noack and Chad Lang will be essential if our team can be considered a championship contender.
Q: Lastly, you have accomplished a great deal in coaching. What brings you back to the gym every year? What excites you and challenges you about coaching basketball?
A: I think I have the best coaching job in America. Belmont attracts the kind of quality student-athlete that I enjoy coaching; it is a privilege to represent Belmont alongside these outstanding young people. Belmont also allows me to attract the kind of staff that makes coming to work each day enjoyable.