DAYTON, Oh. (WTVF) — When Belmont takes the floor against Temple tonight in the First Four it will be its first NCAA Tournament game since 2015.
Not a single player on this year’s roster has played in the Big Dance before. And as they arrived in Dayton Monday, the Bruins did their best to take it all in.
“I think once we step out on the floor for shootaround and then feel that vibe and atmosphere it’s actually going to sink in that we’re actually here and dancing,” Belmont forward Dylan Windler said. “Especially if we win a game or maybe two, it’s really going to start getting the thing rolling.”
Starting in 2003 every single Belmont player that completed a four-year career played in at least one NCAA Tournament. That steak looked to be in jeopardy when the Bruins lost the OVC title game to Murray State.
But at 26-5 they earned the program’s first ever at-large bid, and will send Windler and and fellow senior star Kevin McClain out in style.
“One is the really gratifying things about getting in is our two seniors, who have been on really good teams in their four years. Three conference championship teams but no NCAA Tournament until now,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said. “Because when we recruited them we were going pretty regularly and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons they came was to go to the NCAA Tournament, so that’s good.”
CARRYING THE BANNER
Belmont’s at-large selection was the first for an OVC team since Middle Tennessee in 1987. In a selection process where mid-major teams are often overlooked, score one for the little guy.
“It just gives hope to those mid-majors at the start of the year that we have a chance at an at-large bid,” Windler said about the Bruins’ berth. “You want to start off winning every single game that you can because it can pay off.”
Now the Bruins have to prove they belong. The program is 0-7 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, but is a slight favorite against Temple.
A tournament win in Dayton and the opportunity to take on six seed Maryland Thursday in Jacksonville could go along ways to validating Belmont’s inclusion.
“There’s been a lot of people promoting our cause,” Byrd said. “I don’t know if it’s about carrying the mid-major flag as much as it is about carrying the Belmont flag. Just playing like those guys said we could play. They said we were a good team and deserved to be here - that we could win games in this tournament. And so I feel a responsibility to those folks for standing up for us.”
MUSZYNSKI TO PLAY
Belmont should get a boost with the return of big man Nick Muszynski. The OVC Freshman of the Year suffered an ankle sprain in the OVC semifinals and missed the Bruins’ loss to Murray State in the championship game.
Muszynski practiced fully for the first time since the injury Monday. Byrd says he was a bit tentative, but plans to give it a go tonight with the season on the line.
“I hope that in another 24 hours with treatment and a little adrenaline that you get when you play in the NCAAA Tournament, it’s going to help him be the player he was before he got hurt,” Byrd said.
Byrd has won 804 career games and is such a nice guy that fans and coaches from all over the country cheer for him and his teams. But the sentimental favorite for many in this First Four matchup will be on the other bench.
Seventy year old Temple coach Fran Dunphy’s retiring at the end of the season, which could come as soon as tonight, in his 17th and final NCAA Tournament.
“Happy to be playing Temple in the sense that I have so much respect for coach Dunphy and the kind of coach and person he’s been,” Byrd said. “And I am really happy that in his last year he has made the NCAA tournament. “And if we don’t go further than this, I’ll be glad that Fran Dunphy is going further than this,”