Among NCAA Contenders, Belmont University Outsmarts Them All
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
By the numbers, the top team in the NCAA men's basketball bracket this year - the 15th-seeded Belmont Bruins. OK, we're not tallying field goals and rebounds. Belmont takes the prize if teams are going head-to-head based on metrics like academic progress and graduation rates. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Belmont's success on and off the court goes back to one man - Rick Byrd.
RICK BYRD: Move the ball, move the ball, move the ball.
FARMER: He's paced the Belmont side of the floor in his trademark sweater vest for 29 years. Even when the Bruins made the leap to the more competitive Division I, he refused to recruit players who had no interest in a degree.
BYRD: It's just too hard to be knocking on doors at 8 a.m. to get them to class, or - we don't have all Rhodes Scholars on this team, but we have all guys that want to be in college and do the work, and didn't just come here so they could play basketball.
FARMER: Belmont might not draw many national prospects bound for the pros, even if it wanted to. It makes the most of guys who know college is likely the end of the line. Craig Bradshaw is a smiley, six-foot-three junior from Ridgetop, Tenn. He was crushed when he got his first C freshman year in, of all things, a class called the Art of Paying Attention.
CRAIG BRADSHAW: We had to read a lot and we were on trips all the time. We went to Alaska for nine days and I didn't touch a book. So it was a learning curve for me when I got here. It was easy for me in high school. When I got here, it was a little bit tougher.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three...
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Team.
FARMER: He bounced back. This year, Bradshaw was named an Academic All-American, Belmont's twelfth since 2001, leading the NCAA over that period. The team turns grades into a friendly competition, razzing each other when someone does poorly. Bradshaw says players don't want to break Belmont's 14-year streak with a B average.
BRADSHAW: It kind of is a pride thing and you don't want to be the team to mess that up.
FARMER: Just one student could derail other runs too, like a 100 percent graduation rate for the last 12 years. And over that time, not a single player has transferred, which is pretty common in college ball.
WELCH SUGGS: If a player is not getting great playing time at one program, he or she may have a great incentive to switch to another.
FARMER: University of Georgia professor Welch Suggs studies NCAA academic trends and says the lack of transfers is almost unheard of. Belmont also benefits from not attracting any one-and-dones. Top-tier basketball schools get athletes just meeting the NBA requirement to play one year.
SUGGS: That creates a huge incentive for players to start college when they have no intention of finishing.
FARMER: There's been so much academic fraud in the NCAA that Suggs says he's skeptical of any numbers, but he finds that Belmont doesn't even game the system in allowable ways, like funneling players into less-challenging degrees. Finance and math majors get regular playing time. Recruiting responsible students has meant making sacrifices, especially on size and speed. Coach Byrd also concedes that his team may have fewer players from underprivileged backgrounds, though he contends that's typical for private universities. On the whole, Byrd believes his way has helped rather than hurt on the court.
BYRD: There may be a lot of coaches or fans or people out there that think that I'm limiting how good we can be by excluding a bunch of people that maybe we could squeeze in here academically and not be real outstanding players, but we end up with guys with character that are unselfish and like each other, and that makes us a better team.
FARMER: Byrd's own record with more than 700 career wins helps prove academics and winning can coexist, at least outside the power conferences. Belmont has become a perennial participant in the men's basketball tournament, but the team has yet to pull out its first win. For NPR News I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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