Team preview: Belmont

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Last year at this time, Rick Byrd knew he had a special basketball team, and he was all out of excuses why the Bruins couldn't be. There was no reason they shouldn't win the Atlantic Sun championship, and the NCAA Tournament berth that went along with it.

Turns out Byrd was right.

After tying cross-town rival Lipscomb atop the regular-season A-Sun standings, the Bruins claimed a thrilling 74-69 overtime win over the Bison in the championship game of the conference tournament. After years of trying, Belmont had finally earned the school's first NCAA Tournament bid.

Things didn't go so well against those other Bruins from UCLA, but no matter. The accomplishment of just getting there was special. Byrd said he's often reminded of the trip to the Big Dance.

"Almost daily, somebody I haven't seen since the tournament will run into me and congratulate me," Byrd said. "That part has been great."

It also hasn't hurt matters on the recruiting trail, where more athletes around the country have heard of Belmont.

"It allows us to say we're capable of going to the NCAA Tournament," Byrd said. "It legitimizes you a little more. It's all a plus."

But for every plus, there is a potential minus.

Belmont returns all three of its leading scorers and six of its top seven. The Bruins still have size, they still have shooters and they still are loaded with experience. In other words, Belmont doesn't have any excuses for not putting on its dancing shoes again this March.

Yes, the Bruins are going to have to deal with heightened expectations.

Byrd says expectations are part of the bargain, and he wouldn't trade the success of last year to avoid the hype swirling around his team this fall. But he's being very careful not to let his players forget that nothing will be handed to them, and that the NCAA berth could just have easily gone to Lipscomb last season. He also points out that the Bison will be just as strong this season. There are improvements that need to be made, Byrd says, defense and rebounding chief among them.

"I just think Lipscomb hangs their hat on the defensive end," he said. "That's where we can improve the most, personnel-wise, and become a better team."