Jon Teitel's "Big Dance" Interviews: Belmont head coach Rick Byrd
Jon Teitel: This is your 30th year as head coach at Belmont, and your team won a conference-record 30 games this season. Where does this year's team rank among the best you have ever coached?
Rick Byrd: I think it is one of the top two seasons we have ever had. The other one was in 1995, when we were 37-2 and lost in the national semifinals. Each of those years we only one had loss to a "mid-major" school. That being said, it is much more difficult to win 30 games in Division I than 30+ in the NAIA.
JT: Three of your four losses this season were by single digits to SEC teams away from home (twice to your alma mater of Tennessee and once to your close friend Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt). What did your team learn from those losses that you think will help you in the NCAA Tournament?
RB: It gave us a level of confidence to realize that we belong with those good teams. The first game against Tennessee was a one-possession game in the final 30 seconds, and we almost beat them the second time around. The results are positive...but it would have been nicer if Scotty Hopson had missed his layup with 6 seconds left! We are the same team with or without a marquee win. Lipscomb was a rivalry game, which is always hard to win. We still ended up winning a lot of road games, which are hard to win at any level.
JT: Your team has won 21 of its past 22 games. Do you feel like your team is playing its best basketball of the season right now?
RB: Our best stretch was a homestand in early-January where we won four in a row by 30+ points in each game. We were turning people over like crazy, and it seemed like we had six guys out there at a time! We have had more competitive games since then, but when you can win an important game like a conference tourney final by a lot of points, that says a lot of good things about your team.
JT: Mick Hedgepeth was named conference tournament MVP after scoring 23 points in a 41-point win over North Florida in the conference tournament final. What makes Mick such a good player, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?
RB: Mick had a great game because we tried to get the ball inside to both him and Scott Saunders, but Scott was on the bench in the first half with foul trouble. We consider them equally important to us at the 5-spot, and both have worked awfully hard to get open in the post and draw fouls. We did not make it to the locker room until about 45 minutes after the final buzzer. I just wanted to get back there to see who was riding the bus back to campus because we were starting spring break that weekend. It was great out on the court to see the players get excited, hold the banner, etc. To see those smiles is what makes it worth being a coach.
JT: You were recently named Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year for only the second time ever. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding honor?
RB: That is all about what your team accomplished relative to other people's expectations. Our whole staff deserves it, as the assistant coaches put in so much work behind the scenes. It is always nice to win such an award because that means your team had a great year.
JT: Point guard Drew Hanlen has an assist-to-turnover ratio that is among the best in the nation. How important is he to your team's success?
RB: Drew's decision making has improved dramatically since last year, and he adds the extra dimension of being a good three-point shooter who has to be guarded behind the arc. Our other point guard, Kerron Johnson, leads the nation in steal percentage (2 steals per game in only 18.1 MPG), so we have a great duo at the point.
JT: Your leading scorer Ian Clark has a birthday one week from Thursday. Does the team plan on doing anything special for it?
RB: Oddly enough we have several birthdays coming up. Ian's is on the 17th, Chad Lang's is on the 18th, and Trevor Noack's is on the 19th. We hope to give them all a great gift by winning a game in the tournament!
JT: None of your top three scorers are seniors. Do you feel like your team is built to win right now, or do you think they need one more year together before they can finally win a game in the NCAA Tournament?
RB: I do not think that we need another year. Before this season a lot of people would have said that our best shot would be in 2012, but I do not know if we can get much better than 30-4! Our players will approach this with a higher expectation level than ever before, and we are going to end up playing a top-25 team. It is just nice to hear people in the media say that we are going to be a "hard out" in the tournament.
JT: I know you are not a fortune-teller, but what seed do you think you will get and what kind of team do you think you would match up well against?
RB: A lot of websites have us as a 12 or 13 seed but I think it will depend on how the other conference tourneys go. UCLA's size made it difficult for us back in the 2006 tourney, and we are not as big or strong as whoever we are going to play. We like to score inside first, and did not change from that plan of attack against Tennessee and Vandy.
JT: You are one of 12 active Division I coaches with 600+ career wins but you are winless in three trips to the NCAA Tournament from 2006-2008. Where would an NCAA Tournament win rank among your career highlights?
RB: As of today it would be right at the top. This year was a special one: 30 Division I wins is actually kind of harder to do than win a tournament game, where you just have to be a world-beater for one night. For the moment and feeling of winning a tourney game at Belmont when we were an NAIA school back in the 1990s, it would be a great accomplishment.