The Byrd Cage

Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

The 2015 Bruins

In Features on November 14, 2014 at 8:29 am

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Guys. It’s basketball season and just like last year, we’re all scratching our heads, trying to figure out what kind of Bruin team we have on our hands. The Byrd Cage is excited to figure it out with you by way of some good content this year.  Tonight’s game against Wright State will obviously be more enlightening than what you’re about to read here but until then let’s cover the basics.

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Mort & Hugs Episode 3.1

In Features on November 20, 2013 at 10:13 am

Hello there, Cagers!  Mort and Hugs are ecstatic to be back and not procrastinating til February.  We’ll see how many of these we can fire off before the postseason. The over-under is 6.

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Rick Byrd on the 2013-2014 Bruins: A Tip-Off Luncheon Recap

In Features on November 8, 2013 at 9:13 am

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One of the many unique aspects of Belmont Basketball fandom is the seemingly unprecedented access to the coaches and players. Each year, I make it a point to make the Tip Off Luncheon because I love Sodexho and I love hearing Rick talk about his completely untested team. Who are ANY of these guys? Can they play the basketball? He has no idea. Read the rest of this entry »

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

In Features on November 7, 2013 at 9:11 am

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“It’s that time of the year again.”

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Belmont Byrd Cage Running Diary: Richmond Edition

In Features on January 28, 2013 at 12:01 am

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Jono’s first Bill Simmons impression went so well that we asked him to do another!

And we’re back, by popular demand, I was told to, with the now annual Belmont Byrd Cage Running Diary. Tonight the Bruins are in Richmond, Virginia Kentucky for an Eastern Division clash ripe with the pungent odor of postseason implications. Apparently I’ve driven through Richmond before on a road trip to Indianapolis and I just didn’t realize it. My experience with central/eastern Kentucky is limited and mostly hinges on one experience: while standing in line at a Subway/gas station for a sandwich, I witnessed a teenage son open mouth kiss his mother. I left. Other than that, I don’t know much about the place.

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Remembering the A-Sun, Moving to OVC

In Features, Game Posts on August 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm

For the next two months, the Byrd Cage will be previewing Belmont’s new OVC opponents.  We’ll introduce you to the mascots, the history, the players- pretty much anything you need to know to get ready for the upcoming season.

With Belmont facing reigning All-American Isaiah Canaan of Murray State this year, it prompted thought on who were the best individual players Belmont faced in the Atlantic Sun era.

This list may surprise some, especially considering that talented, accomplished players like Jonathan Rodriguez (Campbell), Courtney Pigram (ETSU), and Torrey Craig (USC Upstate) did not crack the Top 10. The list was defined as ‘The Top 10 Toughest Opposing Players’ during the Belmont A-Sun era (2002-2012).

The Byrd Cage welcomes Greg Sage for a special collaboration.  Sage has been with Belmont University for the past eight years as the Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations.  He also teams with the Voice of the Bruins, Kevin Ingram, as color analyst for the Bruin Sports  Network.

Top 10 Toughest Opposing Players during Belmont’s Atlantic Sun Era (2002-2012)

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Everybody Talking About Belmont

In Features, Game Posts on March 12, 2012 at 7:44 am

Look who’s talking…

Kerron Johnson on front page of CBSsports

CBSsports:  Picks the Belmont Upset

ESPN:  Kerron Johnson in Top-10 Mid-Major stars that could bust your bracket

Dick Vitale via USA Today:  Belmont “will not be an easy out”

ESPN:  Nashville is one of only two cities to have two teams in the tournament

ESPN Giant Killers:  Belmont is ranked the 2nd most likely team to upset

ESPN Giant Killers:  Drew Hanlen listed as a player who could cause an upset

ESPN Andy Katz:  Belmont Could Beat Georgetown

SBNation:  Belmont a “good” candidate for upset

SBNation:  More upset talk

NJ.com (New Jersey Local News):  Georgetown overrated, Belmont “tricky”

CBSsports:  Belmont not afraid of anyone

CBSsports:  One of the Top 5 “Must Watch” games

AP:  Belmont thinks 5th time is a charm

CBS’ Seth Davis:  Belmont in Sweet 16

NBC Connecticut:  More Sweet 16 Talk

NBC:  Belmont a “trendy” pick

NY Daily News:  Teams to “watch out for”

Bleacher Report:  Belmont Sweet 16?

Belmont a “Dark Horse”

What about you?  What do you think?

Exclusive: The Byrd Cage Sits Down With Coach Rick Byrd

In Features on March 6, 2012 at 9:57 pm

I finally got to meet the man that everyone in Athletics called “Coach”.  As I walked into his office-which was covered with cut nets and trophies- Coach Byrd emerged from behind his large desk and extended his hand.  He asked me to sit at a smaller table and chairs where we could relax.  He didn’t want to be behind that large, executive desk.  He wanted to sit closer, get on my level, and I could immediately feel a genuine warmth and welcome from one of the best minds in the NCAA.  I wanted to get things rolling, to not waste his time, but he asked me about myself for about ten minutes.  We spoke about what I studied at Belmont and what I’m doing now.  I was a fan, with a little blog- but he treated me like a highly touted recruit or wealthy donor. I had a feeling I wasn’t the only one he did this to, and that this genuine quality is what kept him at Belmont- really caring about people.  The interview that follows was full of honesty from a man that exudes quiet resolve, discipline, and a warmth that is infectious.  What follows is my interview with the great man, Coach Rick Byrd.
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Brett McReynolds:   Coach Byrd, you are one of only five active NCAA coaches with over 500 wins at one school.  You have clearly accomplished a lot at Belmont University.  What would you call your greatest accomplishment?

Coach Rick Byrd:  First off, you know that’s a legitimate stat, but not nearly all of them are division one wins.  I think it’s a little… you know.. it’s not easy to win NAIA games- so I’m not saying it is less important.  But you know, first of all, I’m not the least bit comfortable talking about my accomplishments, but I think the most difficult thing is that we really came in and kind of, um, rebuilt.. what’s the right word?  It’s kind of like I had two jobs here at Belmont, one was an NAIA job, I came here the very March that Lipscomb won the [NAIA] National Championship.  So, your rival, and what you are going to be compared with, is the best in the business and you got to find a way to be competitive.  By the end of ten years we beat them six times in row and had our share of at least even success in the last five years against Lipscomb.  But I think going from NAIA to Division 1, and having the success that we have now enjoyed, has got to be sort of the cumulative greatest accomplishment of this program.   Because, a lot of people have tried it- I don’t mean people- a lot of schools have tried it- and it’s just not easy.  Wofford has been to the Tournament the last two years from the Southern, and they started this five or six years before we did.  There are many schools around, Tennessee Tech hasn’t been to the Tournament since 1963, there are a lot of schools around that don’t get to go at all.  And certainly a lot that have tried to make this move.  So, to make it to the tournament 5 times and win to win 5 regular season championships- in a relatively short time after going Division 1, is something we are proud of.

BM:  There were some high expectations for the team this year.  Starting off strong against Duke, the year seemed to begin on the right page, but some key losses against USC Upstate and Miami of Ohio, stopped the idea of a 30-win season.  How would you compare this team versus last year’s team?

CRB:  Well, i’ve spent most of this year trying to talk to our guys about not comparing it, because it’s, it’s a little unfair. 30-5 was a historic year.  And, all you had to do was look around to see that hardly anyone else did that, that year.  And hardly anybody ever does it.  Even though a lot of guys were back, our schedule was pretty obviously tougher.  Even though we started with Duke and Memphis on the road, the two games against MTSU and how good they were, and the two games against Marshall- the five game, ten day trip- four of them on the road was a challenge to say the least.  So, we lost the two games, and I mean, you didn’t mention the Lipscomb game at home, that was our worst loss.  The Upstate loss was bad because we were up 16, but anybody in the league who has tried to win at Upstate could tell you it was a tough one.  We should have won the game.  But you can look around the country and see the best programs, that’s why it’s impressive to see what Kentucky has done going 18-0 in the SEC, and what Syracuse has been able to do.  Usually even the best teams stumble every now and then.  And so, with what I think was a much more difficult schedule, I think 27-7 is not too far off from 30-4 this time a year ago.

BM:  That being said about the Duke game, can you elaborate on what Coach K said to you after the game?

CRB:  I remember the first time we played them in the NCAA tournament, but I don’t, I mean, recall.  I may have even talked first.  I don’t recall.  I think I said to him, “I guess we just can’t beat ya,” or something like that. And certainly his comments in the media room about our team were, I think, honest.  You always want to make people feel better, but I think they felt like they literally had not played bad, that they had to play good to beat a good team. I think we knew that night that we had the chance to be a really good team.  And, I got a couple of texts after the game, one text that said you aren’t just good, you are “Sweet 16” good.  I think that night reflected that we could be that good, but I don’t think our play in the last six weeks tells us that we can’t be that good.

BM:  Since Blake Jenkins started his first game against ETSU, the Bruins have gone on a 14 game winning streak.  Talk a little about the 4 position’s evolution throughout this season if you would.

CRB:  Yeah, you know that substitution was more about, “let’s find someone that can guard Adam Sollazzo”. He’s a big, penetrating point guard, and as we looked at video leading up to that game, he was totally the focus of their offense.  And, he’d end up scoring a lot of points if you helped on him too quickly, then he’d pick you apart.  I mean, we had clip after clip of guys getting dunks because their man helped too quick and he fouled the guy.  And so, we wanted somebody that would make his scores tougher in one-on-one, and we wouldn’t have to help off those other guys.  And Blake is long and athletic and a good defender on the ball, and he did a really good job that night.  Adam Barnes came in that night when Blake got tired or in foul trouble and did a good job on him.  And then later on, actually Ian did a good job in the tournament game on him. But that was the reason Blake started.  If we had started- they were playing four guards and a post player- if we had started Mick and Scott both, which was our starting line-up at the time, neither of them can guard Sollazzo, so we would have had a hard time guarding Sollazzo with anybody.  And it just didn’t make sense to even start the game- and I was struggling offensively with both bigs in the line-up.  It’s not how we play.  We play four out- one in.  I was struggling with a way for us to play while they were together.  And we did fine that way, but I think it has made us better.  Partly it’s because Blake has played well most of the time, but just going back to the four guys that can shoot… Now, you ask about the four position.  Brandon and Trevor pretty much shared that spot a year ago, and neither of them have had a decent shooting year, and when you play four out- one in, you’ve gotta have guys making shots.  And they both contribute in different ways.  This weekend Trevor came in against ETSU when they had two bigs in the lineup and did great, and Brandon didn’t play.  And the next night, when Gulf Coast’s 4 was more of a shooter, Brandon came in and did a good job defensively.  So we’ve used those guys more about match ups than who is playing better than the other one.

BM:  Speaking of Blake, how do you react when a player dunks?  Maybe it is just your general steely reserve on the court, but from a fan’s perspective it seems like you may think dunks are a nuisance.  Am I wrong here?

CRB:  I think, if you try to dunk it, and it’s a harder play than trying to score it with a layup or whatever the other option would be, if there is less chance of the ball going in, I don’t like it.  I don’t.  To me that’s a selfish play.  The same way that throwing a pass behind the back would be if the other way is more effective.  If I’ve got a great passer that can throw a behind the back pass in the right place at the right time, then that is okay.  You know, my job as a coach is for us to be as effective as we can be. And I have no problem with he, or Scott, or Mick or anyone else that can dunk it.  If it’s literally as easy or easier, I wouldn’t know [laughter]- whether its easier or not.  But, look, we’ve all seen in our lifetime a whole lot of dunks missed. And who knows whether it is going to be a one-point game or not.  That’s how we talk about every possession.  If you foul up on defense because you’re not focused and you give up a three-point shot, that is a three-point mistake.  If you’ve done the best you can and they run a good play and the kid makes a good shot, that’s one thing.  If you’ve lost your focus out there and make a mistake that gives them points, then it is the same thing as missing that dunk, it’s the same thing as missing that pass.  That’s what a coach does, he makes his team as effective as they can be.  I’m not really interested, I mean, I think our team is an exciting team, but if it weren’t I wouldn’t worry about it if it was good.  Does that make sense?

BM:  Yeah, that makes complete sense.

CRB:  Good.

BM:  Do you think the Lipscomb game is an important event to hold on to as we leave the A-Sun?

CRB:  Yes.  I think it is. You know, if I could have my own personal way we would never play the game again and it would be alright with me.  Because it is a game that creates a lot, at least for me, a lot of pressure.  It’s the game that everyone shows up for, that everyone puts emphasis on, and I wish that people felt that way about every game here.  I wish the students felt that way, I wish the alumni felt that way, I wish everybody wanted to come to every game we play in here.  It almost becomes a little irritating [laugh], you know what I mean.  Therefore, when we do have a bad game and lose to them, and our record has not been as good with them as it has been with anyone else in the league.  And then, I guess, it’s like the Alabama/Auburn football game. So many people put so much emphasis on that, and you can go 10-0, they don’t really care.  You lost to Alabama, or you lost to Auburn.  There is some of that with this game that I don’t enjoy.  But our plan is to play in both places, two games each year.  I think if you have got a game that creates that much interest, a non-conference game that can fill your gym in both campuses it would be crazy not to play the game.

BM:  Speaking of Lipscomb, what is up with “Bisons”?  Do you think the grammatically incorrect mascot name is a reflection on the institution’s educational priorities, or was it just an initial slip by a really bad editor?

CRB:  They’ve changed it though, didn’t they?

BM:  Well, they are trying to change it.

CRB:  They have, everything they use on their website is Bison.  It’s no longer used as “Bisons”.

BM:  Well, right. [laughter]

CRB:  It sounded like their explanation was, was… kind of murky… “Well, we’re not really changing it.. but”.  So I don’t know… [smirking]  It’s certainly [laughter], it’s certainly not any of my business as a basketball coach, although my dad was a sportswriter, so it’s important to get things right.  You know what, here is what I think; I think it is entirely up to them to call their team whatever they want to call it.  We changed from the Rebels to the Bruins one time.  So, you know, if they want to become the “Fighting Bison” they want to become the, you know, it’s up to them [laughter], I don’t know.  But you know, one of the best signs that our student section ever had was, “Bisons Is Not A Word”. It’s something I’ll always remember seeing.

BM:  March Madness is almost upon us.  People are, of course, speculating on who Belmont would draw.  Who would you rather play out of these four teams: Michigan, Marquette, Georgetown, or Baylor?

CRB:  None of the above.

BM:  [Laughter]

CRB:  You know, it would be crazy for me to let you put that in there [smirking], because it is amazing what people find.  I would literally, you know, we are so tied up in our own year… I try to watch games because i’m a voter in the USA Today/ESPN thing, is that what it is?  So I try to follow up pretty closely, but in terms of trying to find time to watch those teams play, about all I can do is catch glimpses and watch their results. So, at this point I wouldn’t have a good idea who might, or might not, be a good match-up for us. And as soon as somebody thinks it is a good one for us, it usually isn’t and vice-versa.  You know, it’s gonna be a top 15 or 16 team that we play, and it will be good.

BM:  I really appreciate your time.  Thank you.

The Blake Jenkins Effect

In Features on February 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Monday night Bruins fans were treated to another magical Belmont performance, led by our usual combination of 3 point shooting (10-25) and strong Center play by the Hedgepeth/Saunders duo (combined for 31 points).  The thought I had leaving the Curb Event Center was, ‘they’re baaaaack.’

As I have mentioned in a previous article, the 2012 Bruins are not the 2011 Bruins.  Granted, this team is still a solid mid-major team, but, we shouldn’t expect last year’s 30-win magic from this squad.  However, I may stand corrected. The Bruins looked the best I have seen them all year and not just because they were playing one of the worst Austin Peay teams in recent memory.

There have been many games this year where the Bruins have had double digit wins, where we at the Byrd Cage have felt uneasy about team chemistry.  The fast paced run and shoot team of Bruins past have been replaced by a team that has shown a lack of confidence with bad passing, poor shot selection, and an overall lack of fire in the belly. So what has changed? Brandon “The Bakery” Baker has been almost non-existent during this five-game win streak, playing an average of 6.8 minutes per game (as compared to his usual 15.2 minutes).

We have mentioned in earlier articles that one of the biggest differences in this squad from last year’s was the inadequate replacement of Jon House and Jordan Campbell.  For most of the season Byrd has tried to make Baker that replacement but his 34% shooting and 3 rebounds per game are hardly the makings of a true starting Power Forward. Enter Blake Jenkins, whose “boomshockalocka” dunk Monday night set the building on fire, has been the x-factor during this win-streak.  He is averaging 21.8 minutes a game (13.9 for the season), 12.6 points per game (compared to his usual 4.7 points per game), and 5 rebounds per game (doubling his season average), during this streak.  Oh ya, he’s also shooting a whopping 64% from the field. If the Bruins are going to win it’s final A-Sun tournament it’s going to be done properly utilizing Blake Jenkins.

Granted, there have been other factors to this win-streak as well, namely Kerron Johnson finally getting his leadership role and shooting percentage under control, but Blake Jenkins has certainly been the unexpected gem that has put Belmont back in the NCAA tournament discussion.

-Steven Lefebvre

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The Deep Cut

Okay, so we have seen Blake Jenkins’ affect on the floor.  We see the intensity, we see the hustle, the dunks, the scoop-ins, the rebounds, the overall defense, and finally, we have seen his impact on the team in wins, (5-0) when he is a starter.  But what does this look like on paper, you ask?  Well, you’ve come to the right place.

What you will see when you look at our Field Goal Percentage (FG%) pre-Blake Jenkins is a team ranked around 220th in the NCAA.  Our 3-Point Percentage is around the 160th mark in the NCAA.

What about when Blake Jenkins starts?

Our FG% jumps to 53.2 and our 3P% jumps to 42.3.

This, by all accounts is huge.

Now, you can say the sampling size is smaller, and the opponents are easier, but a five game sampling with averages of that nature is still very impressive.  It is the reason Belmont is now ranked 20th overall in the NCAA in Field Goal Percentage.  

Blake has proven to be the X-Factor, as Drew Hanlen mentioned in our exclusive interview.  His range of abilities has made opponents rethink the attack, has made them delve deeper into their reserves, and has left us more open on the perimeter.

And, we all know, an open Belmont perimeter is a good thing.

In Blake Jenkins we trust.

-bMm

The Third Third: Analyzing The Rest Of The Season

In Features on February 8, 2012 at 5:52 pm

I read a quote from Ian Clark once, and I’ll paraphrase it liberally, that basketball is a game of runs. One team will do well for a time then the other will do well for a time. The trick to being successful is in understanding how to capitalize fully on the times your team is doing well, and how to manage effectively when your team is not.

The same strategy can be used in evaluating a season. With six games left in Belmont’s regular season, it appears that the Bruins have righted the ship from some mid-season struggles and are poised to finish the season on a winning streak heading into the conference tournament. However, not every run in Belmont’s season has been so rosy.

Let’s look back at the season, breaking it down into thirds. Belmont has 31 games on its regular season schedule so I’ll break it down to 10-10-11.

The first third included Belmont’s three toughest opponents (Duke, Memphis & MTSU) as well as the current ASun front-runner Mercer. From November 11th through December 15th Belmont was 7-3, splitting a series with MTSU (both on the road) and losing to then-#6 ranked Duke and then-#10 ranked Memphis in the first two games of the season. In my opinion, Belmont played its best basketball in the first ten games highlighted by wins over Middle and Mercer and an average margin of victory of 16 points in the season’s first seven wins.

 The second third of the season is where things began to break down. From a December 17th loss to Miami (OH) to an inexplicable loss to South Carolina Upstate on January 21st, Belmont managed a 6-4 record. On the surface, this doesn’t seem that bad as compared to the record in the first third of the season, however, the four losses, including Marshall and Lipscomb, came at the hands of much worse teams.  But during this stretch, Belmont played 6 games away. It’s also important to note that both Christmas and New Year’s occurred during the second third. The highlights of this portion of the season would be a win at Austin Peay, a soon-to-be OVC rival, and a win at home against Marshall, setting the series back to 1-1.

Ultimately, the middle-10 games have served to dictate the overall opinion of Belmont’s season so far. But five games into the final eleven game stretch, the Bruins may well be on the way to righting the ship. With five straight victories over ETSU (Belmont’s favorite road venue), Jacksonville, UNF, Lipscomb and Austin Peay Belmont goes into its second to last road trip of the season with an aim of reminding the Atlantic Sun why its crew has won four of the last six conference championships and why it deserves to jump to the OVC next season. I look at the six games, in order of importance as follows:

  1. Mercer (Feb 25) – The final game of the season in the same venue as the ASun tournament against the current conference leader. If Belmont and Mercer are still tied for the lead at this point, it could go a long way in determining how Belmont’s ASun tenure will be remembered.
  2. ETSU (Feb 18) – The Bucs always play tough in Nashville and a loss to ETSU would set Belmont way back.
  3. Upstate (Feb 20) – Another must win. Belmont can’t lose twice to any ASun opponent and expect to win the tournament.
  4. Stetson (Feb 13) – We already noted that Stetson is Belmont 2.0. The Bruins handled the Hatters once this season but still can’t sleep on the rematch.
  5. FGCU (Feb 11) – Should be a walk-thru game, but then again, Upstate should have been as well.
  6. Kennesaw (Feb 23) – The poor owls of Kennesaw. I expected this team to be better this year. Belmont should win easily.

Let’s also quickly look at Mercer’s remaining five games in order to try and ascertain where they might be on Feb 25. Mercer beat 1Kennesaw in Macon by 30, beat 2Jacksonville and 3UNF by 10 and 11, respectively, beat 4Lipscomb in Nashville by 7 and lost to 5Belmont in the Curb by 4.

If past performance indicates future performance, Mercer should wrap up 4-1. But this is the ASun we’re talking about. Mercer will have to be ready for Lipscomb – the Bison(s?) may decide to play well that day. The Bears should also watch out for Jacksonville and UNF. Both of those teams are improving greatly and judging from Belmont’s past, it’s tough to win in Florida late in the season.

-Matt Sherrill

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Agree?  Disagree?  Leave it in the comments for a good old-fashioned, Oxford-style debate.