To prepare for the tip-off of another great year of college basketball, CHD is reaching out to coaches and players around the country to get the inside scoop on what we can expect this time around. Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with Belmont SG JJ Mann about trying to make his fourth straight NCAA tourney.
You are one of only three seniors on the roster. How much pressure do you feel to be a leader this year? We lost a lot of good players from last year and I was fortunate enough to be named captain. Our other two seniors are on-court leaders whereas I am more of a vocal leader. I try not to put too much pressure on myself because it does not help: we just need to make sure our new guys know what they are doing both on and off the court.
Your non-conference schedule includes games against North Carolina, VCU, and Kentucky. Which of these games do you feel will present your biggest test? Everyone who checks out our schedule immediately says North Carolina or Kentucky, but I would say VCU because it will probably be the biggest home game we have ever had. We lost at their place last year so we have a bit of a rivalry going on. The way they play is obviously going to present a problem.
What are your expectations for the upcoming season? I have been pretty successful so far with three regular season titles and three conference tourney titles. While I do not want to sound cocky, we have a bunch of winners and I have every expectation of going dancing again come March.
Coach Rick Byrd has spent almost three decades at Belmont. What makes him such a great coach and what is the most important thing that you ever learned from him? He understands that we are college athletes but that we are also 18-22 year olds who want to live our lives. He is good at making sure we get some rest and get some days off, and in return everyone buys into his system. Since the system is successful he automatically gets credibility, and he coaches us in a good way rather than yelling at us. He will play the best players but he gives everyone a fair chance. Being coachable and working hard beats talent every time.
You spent one year at Hargrave Military Academy, where you had many teammates who ended up at Division I schools. Which of them impressed you the most (Isaiah Epps, Lorenzo Brown, Mardracus Wade or someone else)? Isaiah was one of the top guys coming out of high school but did not play a lot at Pitt. I was very impressed with Lorenzo. He has great court vision and was as smooth a player as they come, so I thought he might even be one-and-done at NC State.
You played in 35 games as a freshman and were named to the Atlantic Sun All-freshman team. How were you able to come in and contribute right from the start? Going to Hargrave helped a lot because I got to practice against Division I guys every day. I just accepted my role as a freshman at Belmont and played as hard as I could. Coach Byrd is an offensive-minded coach so I tried to play smart on offense and learn the system.
In the 2013 OVC tourney title game, Kerron Johnson scored 12 points including a jumper with 10 seconds left in regulation and a 10 foot jumper with 1.2 seconds left in overtime in a two point win over Murray State. Where does Kerron’s performance rank among the most clutch you have ever seen? Kerron was “Mr. Clutch” ever since I stepped onto campus, even in an open gym or in a practice drill. He demanded the ball and nine out of 10 times he would come through for us. Not a lot of guys make the game-tying shot and the game-winning shot in those circumstances. He really helped us get into the NCAA tourney.
In the 2013 NCAA tourney, you scored 13 points in a loss to Arizona. What did you learn from that game that you think can help you this year? From the get-go you have to be ready to play and have to be more determined than your opponent. As soon as the ball goes up you have to go 110%. I scored most of my points in the second half so looking back, I wish I had done more in the first half.
You were also named to the Division I-AAA Athletics Directors Association Scholar-Athlete Team. How do you balance your work on the court with your work in the classroom? I had to figure out the best way to manage my time and one thing I focus on is not wasting time. If I have 30 minutes free during the day I will try to do some work instead of getting on Facebook. It sounds simple, but I really try to pay attention in class so that I do not have to do as much work outside of class.
You finished the year second in the OVC with 1.9 SPG. What is your secret for playing good defense? I have 1 more year to go so I do not want to give any secrets away! I am not the most athletic guy if you look at me, but anticipation beats athleticism every day of the week. I try to have active hands and look for where the next pass will be. Some people say I gamble too much, but that is the opportunity cost of getting steals.