SportsPulse: The madness is finally here. USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick breaks down everything you need to know about this year’s tournament.
NASHVILLE — Coach Rick Byrd was brought to tears Sunday when Belmont received its first at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
The No. 11 seed Bruins (26-5) will play No. 11 seed Temple (23-9) in a First Four game at 9:10 p.m. ET Tuesday (TruTV) in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will get a chance to face No. 6 seed Maryland in the East Region.
“I cry every day,” Byrd said. “Anytime that anything happens for people that I care about, then I’m going to cry about it. I can’t control it or I would. I’m just happy for these guys, happy for the school, for the people that support us and care about us.”
The Bruins have been to the NCAA tournament seven times but always with an automatic berth as a conference tournament champion either in the Atlantic Sun or the Ohio Valley.
Getting in with an at-large bid, to Byrd, means the program has earned a new level of respect.
The selection committee, which has had a tendency in the past to overlook mid-major teams such as Belmont, rewarded the Bruins’ for their full body of work, which included key wins over UCLA, Murray State, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, Illinois State and Lipscomb twice.
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“They made the most of the opportunities they had; had two wins in Quadrant 1, and we just thought they were a phenomenal basketball team,” selection committee chairman Bernard Muir said. “They’re a team very high on the offensive front, great offensive efficiency, and we thought deserving. They belong in the field.”
Belmont University made the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid for the first time in program history.
Mike Organ, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
Belmont was considered a bubble team after finishing as regular season co-champion of the OVC. The Bruins lost in the conference tournament championship to Murray State, which earned the league’s automatic bid as a No. 12 seed in the West Region.
It had been 32 years since an OVC team got into the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid.
“We were very cautiously optimistically about the chance,” Byrd said. “I thought we had about a 20 percent chance.”
Byrd said Belmont also might have benefited from outside influences.
High-profile individuals such as television analyst Dick Vitale strongly encouraged the committee to take a closer look at the smaller programs. Vitale even mentioned Belmont by name several times during the SEC Tournament broadcast Saturday and Sunday.
“There’s been pressure, or a lot of talk, about the mid-majors not getting a fair shake,” Byrd said. “And maybe the NET (NCAA ranking, which replaced the RPI) had something to do with that; the new process. Maybe it’s just human nature that they’re tired of hearing people criticize them for it and they decided if it’s the right thing then we need to get a mid-major in.”
Dylan Windler, an All-OVC senior forward, admitted he was caught off-guard when Belmont’s name was called early in the selection process.
“I can’t say that I was too confident, honestly,” Windler said. “Just basing it off history with the committee and mid-majors. It doesn’t happen often that mid-major teams get an at-large bid, especially in the OVC. Obviously, by our reaction, we’re thrilled. We can’t really believe it right now; it’s still sinking in.”
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Windler said he was not caught off-guard by Byrd’s tears.
“He gets pretty emotional,” Windler said. “I was not too surprised there.”