NO. 14 SEED MIDWEST REGION RPI 58
Rick Byrd sees a reminder of his program's brush with fame every time he sits down at his office computer. On the wall behind it is a belmont locker room sign, taken from Washington's Verizon Center on March 20, 2008, when for 15 minutes the Bruins were America's Team. Belmont, then a 15th seed, took a 70--69 lead over No. 2--seeded Duke with 2:02 left. In the annals of first-round upsets, Byrd says that "it might have gone down as the greatest ever."
But it wasn't meant to be. The Bruins failed to score again and lost by one. Had the outcome been different, what kind of national profile would Belmont have now? Byrd doesn't indulge in what-if games, but he has replayed the end of that loss in his head many times, wondering what he might have done differently.
What Byrd has done in the four seasons that followed, though, is build Belmont into a stronger program. The Bruins have remained under the radar this season due to their inability to pull off a big win outside the Atlantic Sun Conference. But Belmont might be just as good as Murray State, the nation's most hyped mid-major. (The stats site kenpom.com ranks the Bruins higher than the Racers.) While Murray State's senior backcourt leader, point guard Isaiah Canaan, is an All-America candidate, Belmont's top senior guard, entrepreneurship major Drew Hanlen, can only claim to have trained two preseason All-America candidates (Vanderbilt's John Jenkins and Florida's Bradley Beal) as clients of his skill-development business, Pure Sweat Basketball. That the Bruins' three-man backcourt of Hanlen and juniors Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson pulled off the unprecedented feat of all being named first-team all-conference went largely unnoticed.
The talent that Byrd has stockpiled since that Duke game—"We've recruited better, from top to bottom," he says—has turned Belmont into an offensive force. The Bruins rank third in the nation in points per possession (1.17) and have enough long-range firepower (37.8% on threes) to pull off a tourney upset.
Before this season the Bruins had appeared in the bracket four times since 2006, three as a 15th seed and once as a 13th, and they believe they've paid their Cinderella dues. "Inside the locker room," Johnson says, "everybody feels like this is the year."