DAYTON, Ohio — Belmont, are you ready for your closeup?
The Bruins got their at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, as a good chunk of the nation cheered, most especially schools that look a lot like them. Yes, the selection committee can be won over, if you’re good enough. “I think it gives a lot of hope for mid-majors,” Belmont star Dylan Windler was saying Monday before First Four practice.
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But now the Bruins’ task is simple, and direct, and not that easy.
“We’ve got to prove we belong,” coach Rick Byrd said Monday.
The shiny 26-5 record is no longer pertinent. They need to beat Temple Tuesday night, or at least look good trying. They heard all the pro-Belmont voices out there the past week, they appreciated the support, and they got their wish. But that comes with expectation. March is not without pressure, and the Bruins carry their own particular brand of it.
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“There’s been a lot of people that have been promoting our cause, and I don’t know if it’s about carrying the mid-major flag as much as it is the Belmont flag,” Byrd said. “So I feel a responsibility to those folks for standing up for us and hope that we play like we have many, many times.”
For a week, with the Ohio Valley Conference tournament the first to finish, their NCAA tournament bid worthiness was the subject of national debate. The men of Belmont tried to pass the time until they’d get the word on Selection Sunday.
The coach stayed away from microphones. “I said from the beginning we weren’t going to campaign,” Byrd said. “Certainly I wasn’t going to campaign and Belmont didn’t campaign for that spot.”
Byrd has been around the block a few times. This is his 33rd year at Belmont. He has heard the endless conjecture of who deserves a bid more, a middle-of-the-pack school from the power leagues or someone else with a glowing record, but from a conference further down the food chain?
“I don’t come down on either side of that equation, even though we’re solidly on the mid-major side of things,” he said. “It’s very hard to compare — let’s just throw somebody out — Clemson or North Carolina State or Indiana, with Belmont or Greensboro or Furman or Lipscomb or any of the other people that were mentioned. It’s very difficult to know how we would have done in that league or how they would have done in our league. And so I can get why it’s tough for the committee.”
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But he did hear a lot of high-profile commentators out there pick up the torch for Belmont. “It means a lot. I think they meant it,” he said. “Maybe the program’s earned some respect from people like that who really care about college basketball.”
The players watched a lot of other league tournaments, understanding those might determine their fate.
“It was hard just because it’s out of your control at that point,” Windler said. “You can’t really control your own destiny, which kind of stinks. But it’s watching a lot of basketball, rooting for certain teams you wouldn’t normally have to. Just try to stay patient and stay optimistic and that’s what we did.”
They would dread upsets, understanding that often meant another at-large spot gone. Windler cringed at Oregon’s surprise Pac-12 title. “I knew that hurt us for sure.”
The Sunday watch party was deliberately kept small — just basically to athletic department personnel, rather than the general public. In case, you know, the news was bad.
“To be truthfully honest, a lot of guys weren’t expecting it,” Windler said.
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“I was one of the guys that didn’t expect it at all,” guard Kevin McClain mentioned.
But Belmont’s name was called early, and the celebrating could begin. But that was Sunday, and this is Tuesday. And though Temple coach Fran Dunphy said of the Bruins, “They deserve everything they get,” he wants to bring this Belmont party to a quick end.
This will be the Bruins’ eighth NCAA tournament. They’re 0-7, most of them one-sided. But there was 2008, when as a No. 15 seed, they nearly took out Duke 71-70. Their first-ever NCAA tournament win now would be immaculate timing. Belmont might never have been up for national judgment as much as it will be Tuesday night.