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#investedinyou Tuesday - Three to Remember

#investedinyou Tuesday - Three to Remember

Change is hard.

We like things the way we like them.

From our daily routines to our viewing habits, people are creatures of habit.

Belmont Basketball has had a habit of winning; winning at such a rate that it has become a victim of its own success. Raising the bar to the point that you reside alongside Gonzaga and Kansas as models of conference success for the past two decades.

So when Mack Mercer, Kevin McClain and Dylan Windler arrived on the Belmont campus, expectations came with them; both external and self-imposed. 

Maintaining Belmont's lofty status in the upper crust of college basketball was the minimum standard. 

Taking Belmont to new heights and redefining what success would be, became the collective quest.

They took three different paths, but each will be remembered for years to come.

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"Who is this guy?"

I can still remember the first time I saw Mack Mercer play; he was a rugged, skilled, versatile post player who could score inside and stretch the floor to the 3-point line. He was the dream player for Coach Byrd's 4 out-1 in offensive system, with the ability to deliver inside but also face the basket. 

Over the years, I've been asked "Who is the best post player you've seen play for Coach Byrd?" Each time I respond quickly, "Well, if you're asking most talented, that's easy: Mack Mercer." People look at me as if I have three heads, but make no mistake; Mack had it all. More talented than Evan Bradds, Scott Saunders, Mick Hedgepeth, Boomer Herndon, Andrew Preston, all of them. (NOTE: Nick Muszynski will put this to the test :)). There was a reason Power 5 schools and NCAA Tournament mainstays were salivating, and why Coach Byrd often regarded Mack as one of his biggest wins in recruiting.

Director of Video Operations Christian Sadler and I joked that Mack had so many "Dirk (Nowitzki)" moments in the Curb when no one was watching.

Mack played right away as a freshman, with performances against Morehead State and in the NCAA Tournament vs. Virginia showing glimpses of his immense promise. 

There were so many times I would watch Mack play pickup games or work on his own in the gym and think to myself, "This guy could go down as one of the best ever to play at Belmont."

But unfortunately, a myriad of injuries kept Mack from showing Belmont fans what the coaches, staff and his teammates knew all along.

The turn of events leading into this season was particularly heartbreaking, for after rehabbing and working himself into the best condition of his life, Mack was forced to have a third and final surgery, essentially ending his playing career.

Few players could have - or would have - stayed as tightly-connected to the team after enduring what Mack did. The emotional toll would have been too much.

But it speaks volumes to Mack's character - and also the family environment of the Belmont program - that his involvement during the historic 2019 season would be cathartic.

And as Coach Byrd stated at the year-end banquet, Mack's optimism and support throughout the season were invaluable; he became an extension of the coaching staff and provided welcomed perspective and balance.

What Mack went through physically and emotionally, I truly wanted this to be a special senior season for him; and it was.

If cable news only knew what it was missing in Mack as a political commentator.

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"I never thought I'd see another player who could rival Kerron. Until now."

Much like Mack, when I first saw Kevin McClain play, I marveled at his athleticism and skill for a freshman. At that point, Kevin was best known for his ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 highlight dunk that went viral, but I couldn't get over how much of a game-changer he could be for Belmont on both ends of the floor. From day one, Kevin was a remarkable on-ball defender, and once he got adjusted to Coach Byrd's system, all-conference honors seemed inevitable.

McClain chose Belmont over offers from St. Bonaventure and UNC Asheville, but word on the street was that then-VCU head coach Shaka Smart loved the guard and wanted him as a preferred walk-on.

Right away, Kevin made TWO four-point plays in his college debut as Belmont won at Marquette.

But like so many guards who enter the Belmont program, transitioning from what could be helter-skelter, unstructured prep basketball to Belmont's organized offensive system proves challenging.

I laugh with media members who ask about Coach Byrd and the Belmont offense in that it resembles an NFL West Coast offense; a seemingly endless collection of words, numbers, colors, and action words. It is seriously like learning a new language. If I played for Coach Byrd, I would need a quarterback armband!

Kevin's sophomore year stalled a bit - I think even he would admit that, as he played reactionary rather than instinctually. So often, guards need to decide what situations are "green light" situations, and which are more "yellow light" or "red light" situations, all in fractions of a second.

During that stretch, Kevin was balancing running Coach Byrd's offense with his own God-given abilities.

The summer between his sophomore and junior seasons changed everything; Kevin shifted full-time to the shooting guard position, allowing Austin Luke and Grayson Murphy to exclusively run point. That freedom enabled Kevin to simply play, and boy did he play. 23 double figure scoring games all with outstanding defense and his trademark lightning-quick drives.

When Kevin was shaken up during the 2018 OVC Semifinal victory vs. Austin Peay (aka "The Amanze Game"), few people could appreciate how much fortitude he exhibited to play Murray State the next day. Kevin was really hurting, but his courageous performance that night embodied his entire Bruin career: quiet confidence, resolve and toughness.

And we all enjoyed Kevin's senior season that will rank among the best single-seasons in program history. His game-winning shot at UCLA will be played for decades to come, but lost in the excitement of that moment was how thoroughly dominating Kevin was the entire game. Dozens of NBA scouts were in attendance, and Kevin was unquestionably the best player on the floor that day. He had earned that moment.

All Kevin did was average 19.4 points per game over the second half of his senior season, while defending the opposing team's best perimeter player.

It all culminated with that defining performance vs. Temple in the NCAA Tournament, scoring a game-high 29 points while fighting through an endless parade of Temple ball screens on defense.

We live in a society marked by hot takes and instant gratification.

It would have been so easy for Kevin to have doubts early in his Belmont career; "Is this for me?" "I'm so far away from home."

But his steadfastness was rewarded tenfold; he found a major (design communications) that tapped into his artistic passions and he found teammates that had his back.

I can't wait to see what's in store for Kevin professionally.

His legacy at Belmont is secure.

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"Does he realize how good he is?"

I first heard about Dylan through Coach Byrd, who told me he had a signee who might be better at golf than basketball. As Belmont was working through a stretch of losing Reece Chamberlain, Evan Bradds, Taylor Barnette and Craig Bradshaw in succession, Belmont didn't really need golfers; they needed basketball players.

Coach has said this many times publicly, but it bears repeating; Dylan is among the most natural athletes I've ever seen. He is effortless and silky smooth in everything. 

Dylan was this hybrid player - bringing together the best parts of Ian Clark, Adam Sonn and Jordan Campbell - with Go Go Gadget arms and Dennis Rodman rebounding instincts.

With all the talent - and all we've witnessed over his career - people forget that Dylan didn't start right away (few Belmont freshmen do). He had double figure scoring in his eighth career game, but strangely, in my mind Dylan's turning point game was in the 2017 OVC Semifinal vs. Jacksonville State.

It still ranks among the most painful outcomes in program history, as Belmont ran through the regular season, only to suffer through a frigid shooting night while the JSU frontcourt battered and bruised Evan Bradds for 40 miinutes.

Nevertheless, Dylan rose to the occasion when the Bruins needed it most, scoring 16 points in his most determined and purposeful game to date. Coach Byrd started Dylan in the NIT at Georgia, and he would not look back.

Complacency after his junior season - where he was the only player in America to average at least 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists per game and shoot 40 percent from 3-point distance - would have been understandable.

But Dylan had a different look as a senior; a determination and single-mindedness that he would will Belmont to the NCAA Tournament. No matter what.

Even though he was a marked man on opposing scouting reports, Dylan found ways to dominate games. His understanding of time and score, when to get his teammates involved and when to attack himself, is vastly underrated and will be one of many qualities to serve him well moving forward.

When Dylan scored 20 consecutive points in the second half to lead Belmont past Austin Peay, when pursuit of a regular season conference championship hung in the balance with every possession, it turned the season around.

Much was made of Dylan's season in comparison to Murray State guard Ja Morant; how each performed and how each led their teams. I can only speak to Dylan, but his accountability, preparedness and respect of each opponent and the Belmont process created an atmosphere where his younger teammates followed. Dylan went outside his natural comfort zone this season as a vocal leader, understanding that it was needed for this Bruin team to maximize its potential. When a high-five or pat on the back was warranted, it was there; when a stern glare or kick in the pants was required, Dylan supplied it and moved on.

Dylan never asked anything of his teammates that he didn't demand from himself in regards to consistency of effort and adherence to the scouting report.

That often manifested itself in games by encouraging Nick Muszynski, Kevin McClain - or any teammate - to ride a scoring hot streak or take advantage of a mismatch. Dylan did not need the basketball to be impactful. But if he did have it, that worked too.

His 32 point-21 rebound effort vs. Austin Peay in the 2019 OVC Semifinal ranks among the top individual performances in conference history. 

When the final minutes of the OVC Championship game did not go Belmont's way, the pain and anguish in the locker room was overwhelming. All the seniors had poured into these four years seemed destined for March Madness. But in the minutes and days that followed, the team was left with what ifs and uncertainty.

But also with hope.

What transpired Selection Sunday was not a hand-out; it was not candy on Halloween or a participation trophy in little league. An NCAA Tournament at-large bid was earned through on-court performance and national respect.

And the tears that followed - now tears of joy - fueled a new purpose.

Belmont was no longer the Little Engine That Could in the bracket, it was a viable threat to advance. McClain and Windler made sure of that.

To see Dylan emphatically place Belmont's name on the bracket in the locker room after the Temple win encapsulated the emotion of every person who has ever been a part of the Belmont program.

It wasn't just 40 minutes in Dayton; it was a collection of practices, offseason workouts, film sessions and bus rides over decades.

Dylan became the face and voice for all of us. And he did it with thoughtfulness, class and poise.

As much as he will be inexorably linked to March Madness and his performance against Maryland, I'm glad Dylan's own Belmont experience will be so much more - relationships, campus life, a mission trip to Kenya.

1,687 points. 1,001 rebounds. 94 wins. Glory in March.

Not bad for a golfer.

Greg Sage is Assistant Athletic Director for Broadcasting & Media Relations