National : Rotation of 10 leads Belmont to NCAA Tournament
When Belmont head coach Rick Byrd sits down to make a practice plan, the first thing he does is write the words ‘red’ and ‘blue’ at the top of a piece of paper. Next, he picks names from his 16-man roster, putting eight under each color heading. By the end, he creates two practice teams, each with at least two guards, two forwards and a center. He repeats this exercise before every practice, coming up with as many different combinations as he can.
He does not care if his starters are all together. In fact, he prefers if they’re not. Byrd said he has 10 players worthy of being starters but the ability to only play five at a time.
As a result, he developed a system so that, come game time, he gets the very best out of all 10 of them: No player usually stays on the court for longer than 25 minutes a game.
‘You can come in and take the first five guys that you want on our team, and the second five have almost if not a 50 percent chance of winning that game,’ Byrd said.
Under the system, sophomore Ian Clark has the most minutes per game on the team with 24.6 on average. The Bruins have nine players who average between 15 and 25 minutes per game. Byrd said it is the team chemistry at Belmont and evenness of talent that allow his plan to work. And the Bruins (30-4) used that chemistry to book their first NCAA Tournament trip since 2008 after they trounced North Florida 87-46 in the Atlanta Sun tournament championship last Saturday.
In his plan, Byrd mixes up who is on the court. Regardless of the combination, he gets results. The style allows the players to exert more effort for the time they are on the court, pressing throughout the game to force turnovers.
The key to the success of the system is the cohesiveness of Belmont’s team. Clark said none of the players are selfish, so the team is more effective as a whole.
‘A lot of teams have a lot more egos than we do,’ Clark said.
Byrd identified his team’s closeness when practices began last fall. Throughout those first weeks, he had trouble picking starters out from the bunch. So he tried giving players even time in the preseason NIT and was pleased with the results, leaving the tournament 3-1 after losing only to then-No. 24 Tennessee. From then on, the bench players got almost as much time as the starters.
As his plan developed, Byrd realized a system like this would keep his players from burning out toward the end of games — and toward the end of the season.
‘We’re trying hard to maximize the effort on the floor by taking away the fatigue factor,’ Byrd said.
Byrd quickly figured out that if he wasn’t worrying about saving his best three players for game day, practices could run longer, though he doesn’t always choose to do so. He was able to get more out of his players on a day-to-day basis, regardless of how much time the team had between games. Fatigue never set in.
Clark said the players could feel the benefits of less game time over the course of the season.
‘You’re not playing 30, 35 minutes a game, so it allows us to practice harder in a shorter amount of time,’ Clark said. ‘That’s an advantage because if you practice hard, the games come easy.’
Belmont had the advantage particularly toward the end of the season, when its players were still going strong. The team lost only once since Dec. 23 and sailed through the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Junior Scott Saunders, who is one of the team’s top players coming off the bench, said the team’s success in the latter part of the season was a direct result of the restricted playing time.
‘We were able to lay it on teams in the second half,’ Saunders said. ‘When most teams get a little worn down, I think we were refreshed.’
This trip to the NCAA Tournament will be Belmont’s fourth in six seasons. In 2008, the team captured the nation’s attention when it lost by only one point to Duke in the first round after being up by one with only 20 seconds to go. This year’s team has different tactics but can build on what previous teams have done.
Although he doesn’t feel the Bruins are at the same level yet, Byrd said he hopes to reach the status of teams that have worked their way up through the NCAA Tournament ranks, such as Gonzaga and Butler. This year, he said, the team will benefit from a history of NCAA Tournament appearances because the program is no longer an outsider.
‘The players can see that Belmont’s been there before,’ Byrd said. ‘Belmont has a legitimate chance to win a game at that level, when before we would just hope to win a game.’
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