As a veteran coach, Belmont’s Rick Byrd notices the little things.
Yes, he knows he has a 3-point threat and assist machine in junior Drew Hanlen and a slasher and aggressive defender in sophomore Kerron Johnson. That is why the duo complements each other well at point guard, a position they have shared time at all season.
Byrd, however, recognizes that possibly their biggest strength has nothing to do with basketball technique or skills.
“I think what those two guys have done the best is pull for each other,” he said. “There are a lot of times on the bench where I notice the other point guard being the most excited one for a good play by his partner/rival for playing time. That is hard to achieve and it does a take of level of unselfishness and setting your ego aside.”
In practice, though, it can be a different story.
“The team has seen us go at it a few times,” Johnson said. “Between the lines, we are both physical, both very competitive. ... It is an everyday occurrence. It has got to be. We don’t just turn the competitiveness off in practice. We both want to win each day. We both expect a lot out of each other.”
They both give a lot to their team, too.
Hanlen has started all 27 games and averages 23.7 minutes, while Johnson spells him, averaging 17.8 minutes. Combined the duo averages nearly 15 points, 6.7 assists and 2.4 steals for the Bruins (23-4, 15-1), who lead the Atlantic Sun Conference and host second-place East Tennessee State University (19-9, 13-3) at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Hanlen and Johnson’s shared court time is just one example of Belmont’s unselfishness as 11 players average at least 10 minutes a game and no one averages more than 25.
“This much parity of playing time wasn’t even a preseason plan,” Byrd said. “It evolved as we practiced and saw how close everybody was and decided let’s utilize our depth and let’s press. We don’t have a pressing team, really. Yet we wanted to make our guys tired so the other guys would get in and we wanted to make the other team tired.”
Hanlen left Webster Groves High School near St. Louis as the program’s all-time leading scorer and with a state championship. Johnson departed Madison Academy in Huntsville, Ala., with more than 1,800 points, 600 assists and three state titles and was named Alabama’s Mr. Basketball as a senior.
Both players received numerous scholarship offers, including from Arkansas-Little Rock, North Carolina-Greensboro, ETSU, Murray State, South Alabama and Wichita State.
Anywhere else, they might be playing 30-plus minutes a game but that doesn’t seem to bother them.
“If I can play 25 minutes a game and I can go a 100 percent effort, it is a lot better than coasting 30 or 35 minutes,” Hanlen said. “There are some games where they are going to need me to play 35 minutes and I love it. But, at the same time, being able to play 20 minutes and coast with a 30-point victory is the best thing you can have.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Hanlen has played in all 91 games of his college career, starting just eight prior to this season. One of his biggest assets is his outside shooting, as he has made 38.6 percent of his 3-pointers this season, which ranks ninth in the conference.
Johnson said he has learned a thing or two about decision-making from Hanlen, who not only leads the team with 110 assists but has the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.82) in the conference.
“He is not afraid to make a turnover but at the same time he always seems to make the right decision,” Johnson said. “Last year, I had the tendency to drop my head as I drove. So he sat me down and taught me when you drive in there, keep your head up and continue to look for people. I think that is what I really picked up from him.”
Johnson, at 6-1 and 175 pounds, went from starting 23 games last season to coming off the bench in every game this year. His production hasn’t seemed to take a hit, though.
He is fifth in the conference in steals with 45. He has 71 assists and has been solid from the outside — he has attempted only 28 3-pointers but has made 42.9 percent of them. It is no secret, however, that his greatest asset is his speed and ability to drive the ball inside. It is a skill that Hanlen has studied and used to help him on defense.
“I think he is such a great penetrator,” Hanlen said. “When I play a penetrating point guard, I see that every day. It is almost practicing every day for a point guard that I am not.”
Separately they bring different talents to the court. Together, however, they make one complete point guard, which has played a huge role in putting Belmont in the driver’s seat in the A-Sun and perhaps on the cusp of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in school history.
Of course, that has meant sacrifice. The playing time is down and so are the individual statistics but Hanlen, Johnson and the rest of the Bruins seem to get the big picture.
“In high school, obviously, a lot of people are concerned with their stats and I think that is one thing that has separated this year’s team from last year’s team,” Hanlen said. “Last year’s team, I think we had a lot of young guys and we weren’t as mature as this year and statistics meant more than they do this year. This year, we are really worried about one thing and that is the win column, and obviously the loss column as well.
"... Sometimes you have teams where those battles pull the team apart and our battles actually make us better and bring us together.”