- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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An avid golfer and golf fan, Rick Byrd knows a thing or two about trying to win the big one.
“You got to knock on the door a few times before you get in,’’ the Belmont coach said.
Byrd and his Bruins have rapped the NCAA tournament knocker four times. He’s hoping maybe to learn the password on the fifth.
Belmont, the favorite in the Atlantic Sun, rallied from a 13-point deficit in the conference tournament final to secure its second automatic bid in a row and fifth since 2006. It was the Bruins' last run in the Atlantic Sun. Next season Belmont joins the Ohio Valley.
Now for the hardest step -- winning a game. Belmont came memorably close once -- the 15th-seeded Bruins lost by one to Duke in 2008 -- but this year comes armed with a veteran lineup that starts two seniors and a junior.
With his NCAA berth secure and a week’s respite before Selection Sunday, ESPN.com caught up with a relaxed Byrd.
You were favored to win the Atlantic Sun this year? How does that pressure change things?
Rick Byrd: For the coaches, it definitely antes up the pressure. The better you get, the more people know about you, the better job you better do. That goes for any of us in any profession. It can make for a tough week [during the Atlantic Sun tournament] when the expectations are high. We were fortunate to come out in the end and I won't say it was a relief because it’s better than that, but a lot of the feeling is, I can take a deep breath now.
I don’t think the players are playing with the same sort of pressure. We have a pretty relaxed bunch that doesn’t get too excited. I think kids at that age, as long as the season hasn’t gotten too long or too hard, they just like to play. I do know coaches can overdo it sometimes. People would be surprised, but there are teams that just want to get it over with. It’s not fun.
Does the success of other mid-majors in the NCAA tournament change your goals?
Rick Byrd: It should. The first year you go, you say all the right things but you don’t believe them. You really are just happy to be there. You know, we started this thing from NAIA and if you had told me then that I’d get to the tournament one time, I would have been thrilled. You think if you could just get to the point that you could win three games in the conference tournament and go to the NCAA tournament, that would be almost acceptable as a final goal.
But the more often you’re there, the more relaxed and more familiar it becomes and the more normal mindset you can take to the game. We’ve showed up for these league games this year thinking we were going to win, or at least knowing without a doubt that we could win.
And I think that will be closer to that mindset for the NCAA tournament more than any other time.
How realistic is it to expect a mid-major to beat a power team?
Rick Byrd: Most of us build our programs for four years, sometimes even five. So we’re very cohesive, very unselfish. I think that is the part of what’s making schools like Butler, like Davidson more competitive and able to win more games. With the landscape of the higher level, you’re playing people who haven’t been together very long. They’re really talented, they play hard and they’re well coached but there has to be some value to the kind of team you can build over time.
Last year, we were capable of winning that game against Wisconsin but the reality is, they played a great game against us, and if a top-15 [team] plays a good game against any of us, it’s not likely we’ll win. Not impossible, just not likely.
The teams we’re going to play wouldn’t have recruited any of our guys and we couldn’t have gotten any of theirs. The value of unity is good, but in terms of talent, we’re still talking apples and oranges.
So if the goals have changed, how do you make sure your players aren’t disappointed with their season should they lose in the NCAA tournament?
Rick Byrd: We don’t even talk about that part of it. We will be extremely happy with our season when it’s over, regardless of what happens. Historically we’ll be happy and our memories will great. We’ve won 41 of our last 44 conference games. If you can’t be proud of that, you need to do something else.
What’s the advantage of having this week off?
Rick Byrd: You can relax. It’s not a hectic period and probably the best feeling is, we know we’ve accomplished our most reasonable goal.
I also know, guys like Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, he’s preparing right now with everyone talking about how they’ve lost three first-round games, or John Calipari and Jim Boeheim, teams that everyone expects to win, they’re still scared to death of losing. I’m not scared to death. We can enjoy preparing for this game. The last few weeks, we had to approach games, making sure we weren’t going to lose. Now we can prepare to win it.
It may be more fun in the long run to have a team everyone expects to win, but it’s not more fun in the moment.