The Byrd Cage

Byrd Cage Exclusive: The Kerron Johnson Interview

In Game Posts on January 8, 2013 at 10:31 am

 

kerron

Right before the Bruins jumped on the bus for the program’s first ever OVC game against Jacksonville State, the Byrd Cage picked the  brain of Kerron Johnson. As I sat there watching the end of practice the mood was almost serene. It was clear that in a few hours a huge chapter in the program was about to unfold and it seemed everyone was determined to make it right.

If you hadn’t figured it out from Kerron’s performances on the court over the years – this guy gets it. In other words, he understands what makes the Belmont program great. Naturally, we asked him to share the wealth and he obliged.

Kerron Johnson = KJ
Byrd Cage = BC

_______________________________

BC: So have you read our blog?

KJ: Yeah.

{cricket chirps, tumbleweed rolls by . . .}


BC: Today marks the start of conference play. What’s the general feeling amongst the

team? I know everyone is anxious to see how you guys stack up in the OVC.


KJ: Oh definitely. What you don’t understand is that it’s history making for us. Coach reminds us that this is the first game for this school in the OVC and that you have to come out and make a statement and make our time here in the OVC count. We’re just excited. We’re excited for the opportunity. We’re determined, we’re focused and I think you’ll see a very focused effort tonight.


BC: I think you have a really unique understanding of Coach Byrd’s basketball mind in that you‘ve played in three different offensive styles. In the 2010-2011 season you had the up-tempo in-your-face team with a extremely deep bench, in 11-12 the offense really centered around the 5 position, and this year it seems the team is very defensively minded and considerably smaller. Talk about playing in those different styles. What have you learned about Coach Byrd’s coaching/planning philosophy?


KJ: Yeah, our Sophomore year we had the opportunity and were blessed with a very deep team. We had 11 or 12 guys that could all – at any time, start. So, on that team I think he just wanted to keep it going, and try to find a rhythm for everybody so we subbed a lot. I think everybody just fit into their role. Even if you were coming off the bench you wanted to be the best 6th man coming off the bench. It was just a fun time, it was fun to see people pull for each other.

Like you said, last year we wanted to take advantage of our two five-men. We knew we would have a lot of shooters. We knew we were kind of small on the perimeter with two point guards starting. So we knew we had to get it inside to those guys who played a huge role. Now you see the versatility of Coach Byrd’s mind. This year, we know that we’re smaller, we’ve gotta be that scrappy team, that hard-nosed – just tough, in your face, every game type of team. Just coming from his mindset you can just see the levels of his mind. You know my sophomore year we were a lot more run-and-gun, last year we were running a lot plays to get the ball inside and take advantage of that. This year, at the beginning of the year you wonder what he’s gonna come up with. He always seems to do it.

That’s not by mistake. He’s mastered his craft. He’s been here a long time, he’s had countless different teams, with countless different players […] and this year we rely on our defense a lot and we try to slow it down and work our offense and execute in half-court like we know we can.


BC: I’ve always thought that the success of a Belmont Basketball team largely depended on the team’s collective ability to listen to and execute the system that Coach Byrd directs. In what ways can players function as leaders to the team in that sort of environment?


KJ: Well I just think that’s just maturity. I think that comes with maturity. My freshman year that was a little bit harder to take in. This year, you just come to it buying-in. You see it work, and when you’re in and it works, it’s awesome. So, you know it might be a little bit better coming out of high school, being a highly touted freshman. For all of our guys coming in next year I’m sure it will be an adjustment for them. Like I said, once you’re in the system and you see it work, you want to buy in. Our guys do a great job of leading and they buy in their position, they buy into their role, and in-turn that helps the younger guys buy into their roles.


BC: At what point in your career did you realize you had the unique ability to drive and get looks at the basket in – what seems like from the bleachers as – impossible situations? How did you develop that? Were you doing that sort of thing in high school? Or did you come here and see that you had to make plays happen?


KJ: [laughs] I don’t know. I sat down with Coach Byrd and we talked about it. For two years my freshman and sophomore years, every time I would drive, we would watch film and see all the options, and we’d rewind it. Even if I made the shot, we’d go back and say, ‘Well see this next time – just in case.’ At the time it was frustrating but now you just see the more complete point guard you become and getting the other guys open shots. That’s when I realized my role on this team. You know, score when you have to but, how can I get these guys open shots? How can I help these guys get better and mature and do their things. That’s a great compliment to Coach Byrd as well as Coach Casey when he was here. He was a big factor in that. I think just repetition [and] trusting your teammates. In high school it’s easier to just shoot it every time. Every year you know, you trust Ian, trust J.J., trust Drew and everybody to make those shots. When they’re making them it makes my job easy.


BC: Speaking of making opportunities for other players, this is your first year playing at Belmont where you haven’t had big Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth to pass to when slashing to the basket. Were you anxious about that in the offseason?


KJ: Yeah but its just all about adjustments. Losing that height, you get something back in Trevor and that athleticism, and maybe better hands, maybe quicker releases. As a point guard, you have to figure out the better way to pass them the ball. With Mick, you go in there and you pass him the ball high and he keeps it up high. Maybe with Blake, maybe you throw it up and let him go up and get it. Maybe with Trevor you dish it off quick and he finishes through contact. So, I think it’s just all about knowing your personnel. Yeah we lost some height, but I think we gained a lot in outside shooting that opens up the lane for me and Trevor’s able to step out to 15 feet and make those shots where you didn’t really have that in Scott and Mick. So, in losing that height you gain a little back. You just have to counteract it.


BC: Speaking of Blake finishing hard, did you know he could dunk like that? [referencing Sports Center Top Ten beastmode dunk vs Lipscomb]


KJ: I think Blake’s got – Whenever I’m always asked about Blake I say I think he’s got the biggest upside out of anybody. Its just whether he’s gonna buy into being the type of player he can be. Is he gonna be pushed? Is he gonna be defensively strong enough? I think next year you’ll see it. It’s gonna be his and JJ’s team per se. You’ll really see a bigger side of Blake than you’ve seen.


BC: Let’s talk about Trevor – he has come through in a big way as a 5 this year and put up some big numbers, has that surprised you or has he played in that position during practice in previous years?


KJ: It didn’t – It  surprised me that he would be able to score that well against the height he’s faced. But you know, Trevor’s a smart kid, he’s a tough kid and he knows how to use his angles. He’s really smart  around the basket. I think where he loses on the defensive end, I mean they have to come out and guard him too. I mean he has played the four for three years, so he knows how to play out there. Not many five men know how to go out there and guard them out there. So, like I said, it opens the floor up and Coach Byrd puts us in great positions out of the pick and rolls and getting him shots and getting him good looks at it. He’s playing well. He’s capitalizing on it and he’s playing out of his mind right now. That’s what we need from him. That’s what we need.


BC: You talked about leadership – When you came in as a Freshman did any players take you under their wing? What did that look like and how do you think that helped you?


KJ: I think immediately coming in, the person I can remember the most is Jordan Campbell. Me and Jordan had a real deep friendship. Even coming on my visit, I thought that was the guy I gravitated to and hung out with. Being around him and seeing how he was able to come back off that injury. Seeing how he really made plays his senior year and really bought into the system really helped me – and he really wasn’t that loud of a guy. He was a silent type leader and I hadn’t really seen that or been around that. You kind of learn how to lead from example more than with words. Also, I think Drew Hanlen. I mean we battled for two years everyday. We fought for it everyday – and we had our fights. I think that my junior year, his senior year we really figured it out and put it together. Now he’s one of my best friends because those are the guys you want to go to war with. Those are the guys you know are gonna fight. I think those two guys and of course my friendship with Ian is on record but those two guys coming to me and taking me under their wing and showing me buying into Coach Byrd’s system. Seeing how Drew took Coach Byrd’s hard criticism and kept playing. To have another point guard to talk to and go through that with [was good].


BC: So with that in mind, what are you doing to invest in this year’s incoming Freshman? What kind of legacy do you want to leave for those guys?


KJ: Well I think all of our seniors want to leave a legacy of winning – of expecting to win. We don’t want to see a drop off after this year. For years before this, the teams before us have put us in this position to go down. I think I’m just trying to lead this year’s younger group with a sense of pride, a sense of integrity for playing here. A sense of – wearing that ‘Belmont’ across your chest. I try to talk to Caleb and Reece about how to become a better coach on the floor. I think thats what Coach Byrd loves about his point guards and why he pushes them so hard to become those point guards – those coaches on the field. SoIi just try to tell Reece to come out of his shell. He’s kind of quiet spoken. And Caleb – it’s all about helping him mature in this system and I’ll think they’ll be fine. I think they’ll surprise a lot of people next year when people might think they’re down. I think they’ll come back strong.


BC: You talk about Coach Byrd pushing the point guards pretty hard. It seems at the end of last year and this year, you’re getting less ear-fulls coming off the court from Coach.  What does Coach Byrd most often get on to you about?


KJ: I think maybe over penetrating – trying to do too much. Sometimes you’ve got to learn how to let the game come to you and that’s kind of a hard thing to learn coming from my background being so competitive and so aggressive. Just kind of letting the game come to me. You just have to get through and really hear what – because he’s a competitor too – I think you have to learn how to see through the yelling and really understand what he’s trying to get you to understand. When you do that – he may be in the moment, but he’s always good about coming back when he’s in a calmer head and having a conversation when you might not have heard him the first time. I think he’s a good coach in that regard. He knows when he might have rode somebody’s horse but he knows when he needs to push it forward.


BC: During your career at Belmont, the visibility of the school’s basketball program has increased dramatically at the national level. How do you think that exposure has actually affected the program as a whole?


KJ: I think you’re seeing better recruits every year. I think this class of recruits coming in –

BC: Have you got to play with any of those guys?

KJ Yeah! And I think they have a huge upside. I think those freshman coming in – if they will buy in – and the [schools] that could have them now – man I think they have a huge upside. It just makes you happy for the program. It makes you happy for how Coach Byrd carries the program. You never have the violations because he’s doing things the right way – showing people that it can be done the right way. You don’t have to go to all these bigger schools to come into an atmosphere like this and be a part of a family like this. I think guys are realizing that  – with all these people coming down with sanctions – people are realizing that – I want to go somewhere where I’m gonna play, where I’m gonna enjoy my years, and I’ve got a good coach and not have to worry year-to-year, ‘Who’s my Coach going to be?’ or ‘Are we going to be in trouble this year?’ You’re just going to a program where you don’t have to worry about that. You can just play. You can be a student. You can just grow up and mature. I think you’re really going to start to see that now.


BC: Alright now for a couple of fun ones. You and Ian are roommates and seem to be good buddies. He’s our best defender in recent memory – if not ever –  and you are one of the best scorer’s in recent memory. Do you guys ever go one on one? Who wins?


KJ: [laughs] Uh yeah me and Ian – to be honest it depends. I think we get out here and we fight a lot. We play one on one and its always a battle. There’s no best-friends. We both want to be the best and I think that carries over. We’ll play games of one on one – we’ll play games of post players – we’ll be post players and see who’s the better post player! Just competitive things like that. Obviously, he’s a better shooter than me but – don’t  tell him I said that.


BC: I won’t . . .

KJ: No, I mean we come out here and do shooting drills and I love it because I know I have to shoot a good percentage. You know it forces me to a better player every day. No – I’m gonna come out here and shoot against you all day.


BC: Well – this last one I’m kind of apprehensive about asking but the guys from the blog want me to ask you for an embarrassing story about Brandon Baker. They love to rib him. What’s the deal with that guy?


KJ: Brandon? [smiles] I think people don’t really understand Brandon sometimes. I think Brandon is hilariously sarcastic at times but he just knows . . . I think if you remember Keaton Belcher, if you know Keaton Belcher they are SO similar. When the two of them have conversations it would just awe you about the stuff that they know! He reads Brian Scalabrine – he loves Brian Scalabrine – he reads his books (good reads?) he loves him all the time – he listens to podcasts (Bill Simmons?) Brandon at the same time – while he’s hilarious – I think he’s one of the best leaders that we’ve had. His maturity since his freshman year and seeing how he leads people now – how he’s changed his life – how he’s made some mistakes but he’s learned from those mistakes and just how he’s handling everything in his life right now.


BC: Yeah I saw the big write up on him on ESPN – it was awesome.

KJ: Yeah! While you see all the funny stuff – you don’t get to see the real serious part about him. But Brandon – to know him is to love him. You just gotta talk to him and I promise you won’t leave not laughing.

 

– – – – – – – –


That night, Kerron had an off-night against Jacksonville State going 3 for 10 from the field and committing 7 turnovers.

My bad.

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  1. “That’s not by mistake. He’s mastered his craft.”

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