Rick Byrd would prefer to have this discussion next week. Actually he’d rather not have it at all.
The Belmont men’s basketball coach, however, knows one slip-up this weekend at the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament in Macon, Ga., could turn the Bruins from a NCAA Tournament shoe-in to a bubble team.
“This team, I think they understand what they have accomplished and are proud of it. But I think they also understand that the world we live in, these three games this week are the most important part of the year,” Byrd, who was named the A-Sun’s Coach of the Year on Tuesday, said.
Belmont is 27-4 after cruising through conference play with a 19-1 record and the A-Sun regular season championship, which guaranteed the Bruins a spot in the NIT. But that’s not where they want to end up.
Belmont is the top seed in the conference tournament and opens with eighth-seeded Kennesaw State at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday. A league tournament title would assure Belmont an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which would be the school's fourth ever and first since 2008.
If the Bruins lose this weekend, it would put them on the bubble. Despite their overwhelming success in conference play — they have has a plus 20.9 point scoring margin in league games and their lone loss was to cross-town rival Lipscomb — they might end up on the outside looking in.
The Bruins have a respectable RPI of 55 but their strength of schedule ranks 253rd out of 345 teams. Belmont is 0-3 against teams in the RPI top 50, with two losses to Tennessee (34) and one to Vanderbilt (23).
The Atlantic Sun’s conference RPI is 17, better than 15 other leagues but well-behind the six power conferences — Big Ten, Big East, SEC, Big 12, Pac-10 and ACC — which all rank in the top seven. That could be too much to overcome if Belmont finds itself fighting for an at-large bid against, say, Michigan, Baylor or Alabama — all bubble teams right now.
“In some ways, we don’t have a margin for error but we also know our strength of schedule doesn’t compare to their strength of schedule,” Byrd said. “If we lose Wednesday afternoon, then we are not going to get an at-large bid because that would be too bad of a loss. If we lose the championship game in four overtimes, does that get us closer? Who knows. We just need to wait and see what the scenarios are to really even discuss the at-large possibilities.”
Byrd has said he won’t lobby for an at-large bid but says his team has played its way “into the serious discussion part of it.”
In their losses to Tennessee and Vanderbilt, the Bruins were competitive throughout. They lost by nine points twice and fell victim to a last-second shot by Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson.
They did sweep the season series against East Tennessee State, the defending conference tournament champion and a team with an RPI of 85. Belmont also beat Miami (Ohio), which is out of the Mid-American Conference and has a RPI of 105.
But those close losses to Tennessee and Vanderbilt, coupled with those wins, still might not be enough to propel the Bruins into the NCAA Tournament.
“We don’t have a win that just pops out at you,” Belmont guard Drew Hanlen said. “But I think any person that has seen us play and sees the way that we play and the way that we handle ourselves, I think they would say that we belong in the NCAA Tournament, regardless if we win the Atlantic Sun. But, at the same time, I think the Atlantic Sun is our only way to get in. ... The eye test is something I do all the time and I think we are just as good as a lot of the teams that will be in the NCAA Tournament this year with an at-large bid.”
Of course, all this talk of an at-large bid can be squashed if Belmont wins all three games this weekend. Since capturing three straight conference tournament titles from 2006-08, the Bruins are 1-2 in the event. They failed to get out of the first round last year after sharing the regular-season title.
Byrd doesn’t think a lapse in preparation has cost the Bruins a game this season and said if Belmont loses this weekend it won’t be because it overlooked an opponent.
“If we lose a game in this tournament, I am about as sure as I can be it won’t be because we weren’t focused or playing hard,” Byrd said. “It will be because there are plenty of people in this league that can beat anybody else on a given day — more so than people realize in my opinion. They can look at 19-1 and then whatever is next and whatever is next [in the league standings] and say Belmont is the nearest thing in the country to a shoe-in. That is not the case. It is not the case. There are plenty of years where we never have anybody in the top 100 RPI.”
Belmont has won nine in a row and 18 of its last 19. Its league-best 80.4 points a game and its overwhelming depth — 11 players who average at least 10 minutes — have been too much to handle for most league rivals.
The Bruins are clearly the favorite this weekend. Clearly the ones with the targets on their backs. Clearly the ones that are expected to leave Georgia with a championship.
Yet their postseason future is anything but crystal clear.
“We are confident. I think the regular season has given us that confidence,” forward Mick Hedgepeth said. “But basketball is a funny game and anything can happen — and we know that. We just have to mentally, physically prepare ourselves to the best of our abilities and go in there and try to take care of business.”
• A-Sun honors announced: Along with Byrd being named the league’s coach of the year, four Bruins earned recognition when the conference awards were announced Tuesday.
Sophomore guard Ian Clark, who leads the team with 12.5 points a game, was named to the first team. Hedgepeth and Saunders, both juniors who average 10 points and nearly six rebounds, were selected to the second team. Guard/forward J.J. Mann was tabbed to the all-freshman team after averaging 6.5 points in his first year.
For Lipscomb, seniors Adnan Hodzic and Josh Slater were also selected to the first team. Hodzic averaged 18 points and 7.5 points a game, which both ranked second in the league. He also made an A-Sun best 56.5 percent of his shots. Slater’s 90 steals were the most in the league. The Nashville native also averaged 4.7 assists and 16.5 points, which ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the conference.
Lipscomb was the only league member with two first-team selections.