After Belmont beat Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship on Saturday, it seemed all anyone wanted to talk about was whether the Racers (27-5, 16-0) – who entered the final on a 25-game winning streak – would still make the NCAA Tournament.
Lost in the shuffle was the fact that, well, Belmont won the game, 88-87 – and did so in stunning fashion with Taylor Barnette hitting an off-balanced three-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to give the Bruins (22-10, 11-5) an automatic bid to the tournament.
Is Belmont aware that the discussion about this game, by and large, is about the team that lost?
“Well, some,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I’ve been on quite a few shows, as you can imagine, and some focus on that and others don’t even mention it. But I’ve been on the Internet and I’ve seen stories about it. It’s legitimate. It’s a story. They had a great, great year, and it’s a big question. How do you compare a great mid-major year, but a year that doesn’t include what we would call quality wins outside the conference? How do you compare that with a team in the Big Ten or SEC or ACC that’s fighting to get in? Who’s better and how can you tell?”
Byrd, of course, spent all season trying to solve the Murray State mystery. The Racers went unbeaten in conference play, even taking down Belmont, 92-77, on Jan. 15.
Now that the Bruins are in The Dance, however, Byrd is hoping Murray State gets an at-large big.
“Oh, I’m completely pulling for them,” he said. “One is because I have so much respect for the tradition of their program over many, many years, and (Murray State head coach) Steve Prohm is one of the really good guys in our business. A lot of times that’s how I decide who I’m going to be for – the quality of the person that’s heading the program. And at the same time, I totally understand the dilemma of the selection committee. Even though all of us think we would kind of want to be in that room and be in on that, I’m not sure we would after we walked out – because there’s some very tough decisions to be made, and they need to be fair.
“I vote in the USA Today coaches poll, and that’s my toughest part,” Byrd continued. “Should Murray State have been rated this year? Should we have been rated three years ago, four years ago, when we were 30-4 at this point? We weren’t ranked – and I never did vote for us at that point. It’s just very difficult to compare.”
Looking at this season, Belmont lost 10 games and suffered a pair of three-game losing streaks, but Craig Bradshaw – who leads the Bruins with 18.1 points per game – was inactive for some of those setbacks, including Belmont’s worst loss of the season: 78-51 at VCU on Dec. 16.
“We could have drafted a couple NBA players and not won that game that night,” Byrd joked. “So everybody has those things. You don’t want to (make) excuses. This team was young, and we’ve taken a lot of pride in our conference record over the years and in our ability to win tough road games, but sometimes young, inexperienced teams just have a harder time on the road.”
In the end, however, the Bruins are dancing. Belmont has won 12 of its last 15 games, including seven straight, and is eager to prepare for the NCAA Tournament.
“Until we find out who we’re going to play, it’s going to be all about us getting better in the areas that we’ve needed to get better in all year long,” Byrd said. “And in fact, we have gotten better. We weren’t real good defensively against Murray State the other day – and Murray State has a lot to do with that. But prior to that, we had really improved our defensive effort and focus and efficiency and we need to continue to rebound better. We out-rebounded them both offensively and defensively and they’re a really good rebounding team.
“We’re going to be playing an elite, top-10 team in this tournament,” Byrd continued. “We’ve got to get better over the next three or four days and then hopefully we can come up with a game plan that gives us a chance.”