Tournament Tales ...
with Dylan Windler
Lefty Sharpshooter Recalls His Huge Shooting Night in Upset Bid Against Maryland
This past Saturday night, not long after the Wine & Gold stung the Nuggets at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, injured rookie Dylan Windler watched Belmont University knock off Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in the Cavs trainer’s room.
One year earlier, Windler’s Bruins dropped the OVC title game to the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant, and his Murray State Racers.
In the end, both mid-majors both reached the Big Dance.
As OVC champs, Morant’s 12th-seeded Murray State squad stunned 5th-seeded Marquette in the opening round behind the eventually No. 2 overall pick’s triple-double. Windler’s squad had a tougher road to the Tourney – having to top Temple in the First Four in Dayton before reaching the Tournament as an 11th seed – where they’d take on Bruno Fernando, Jalen Smith and the Maryland Terrapins in the First Round.
Temple made it a point to deny Windler – the OVC’s leader in both three-point shooting and rebounding – in the play-in game in Dayton. But there was nothing Maryland could do to stop the lefty sharpshooter when Belmont reached the Tourney.
In that tough two-point opening round loss, Windler went off for a game-high 35 points – going 11-for-23 from the floor, including 7-of-14 from beyond the arc and 6-of-7 from the stripe, doubling-up with a team-high 11 boards and a pair of steals.
As a senior, the Indiana native – who can mash a golf ball 350 yards – was one of just three Division I players to average 20.0 points and 10.0 boards and one of just three seniors selected in the first round of last year’s Draft – going No. 26 overall to the Cavaliers.
As Cleveland gears up for the Mid-American Conference Championship later this week at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Tournament Tales roll on – today focusing on the story of another mid-major and the two-sport shooting star who took them to the Dance …
How did Indiana college hoops let you get out of state to play for Belmont?
Dylan Windler: (laughs) A lot of people have asked me that over the years.
The best answer I can give is just that I was a big golfer in high school, so I really didn't take AAU seriously until my last year.
After my junior year, I still wanted to try golf, but I started to have a really good basketball season in my junior year, and I wanted to try the AAU thing and see where it would go. I didn't have many offers at that point, so I thought: I'll try it out, get on a team and see where it takes me.
So I got on a really good team in the Indiana Elite, and I wasn't really playing a whole lot. And some AAU teams, they've been together for, like ten-plus years.
I was just coming off the bench. And then there was this one tournament where three or four of the top guys got invited to a camp – and I got to start that whole weekend; it was the Adidas May Classic in Indianapolis.
It was is a big tournament and I wound up killing it, I played really well. And I went from getting my first offer that weekend to like, 15, Division I offers. They were all mid-majors, mostly in the Midwest – and Belmont was one of them. I got recruited only for like two or three months, and it was before the AAU circuit was even over that summer, and I ended up choosing Belmont.
I took the visit and I just loved it.
What put Belmont over the top?
Windler: Probably the visit and then, honestly, Coach Byrd. He's obviously a heck of a coach – and I knew that coaching security is kind of a nice thing going into college, knowing that they're not going to change coaches, forcing you to transfer or something like that.
They had a winning program and I visited school and it was amazing. And all the guys on the team were great, so I knew it was a good fit.
Until what point did you think golf would be your predominant sport?
Windler: I would say probably in middle school and then for sure in early high school. I thought that golf was going to be how I got to college on a scholarship. I took it very seriously.
I was practicing constantly. I would play three, four hours a day and I would play every day. I was practicing, I started to take lessons. I was just taking it very, very seriously.
And then during the summer, for golf, you've got to play tournaments every weekend. And that was a two- or three-day thing every weekend. So, I wasn't able to focus on both.
I was still playing high school ball, but golf was my passion at that point.
But I just kept getting better at basketball, started working on that and saw that I had a lot of potential in that area. I did the AAU thing and it just took off from there.
What’s the experience like, chasing a Tournament bid coming from a mid-major conference?
Windler: Belmont had been to the Tournament quite a few times before I got there. Ian Clark made it, I think, two or three times. So they had some really good teams. But for me, it was my first time in the Tournament.
My freshman and sophomore year, we won the regular season, wound up getting the 1-seed and ended up losing in the Conference tournament. It's just really hard in our Conference. Even if you run through the regular season, other teams get hot and there's really no teams that you can just roll over.
And even in my senior year, this past year, we won the regular season and ended up losing to Murray State in the championship.
Obviously, they had a really good team, with Ja Morant and everything, and we we're fortunate enough to slide in with at-large bid.
"All the shots you've taken in practice, all the shots you shoot in the gym, you're looking for THAT rhythm. And I caught it that game. That's the thing you try to get back every time you play. That's the feeling you want. "
Dylan Windler, on how he felt shooting against Maryland
How was the atmosphere at the First Four play-in game in Dayton?
Windler: It was it was actually really crazy, especially when we got there. I remember pulling up to the arena and it was just packed. You could see the whole parking lot when you're pulling up and it was just jam-packed.
And I think it's a really cool thing for the city. They do it every single year, so it's something to look forward to. It's a really good little place to play and they have a really cool atmosphere.
So it was fun, for sure.
How much momentum did winning that play-in game give you heading into the Tournament?
Windler: I think it definitely helped, especially for me. I had a slow game, that play-in game. Luckily we were able to survive and go to the next game.
But I think getting past the first game, just kind of get the jitters out, getting used to everything, we knew we had a win under our belt and there's really no pressure anymore. We were playing with house money.
You personally struggled offensively in the play-in game. How much did that affect you in the First Round against Maryland?
Windler: I mean, I didn't really change a whole lot. I kept same mentality.
It was just tough in that first game. Temple had a really good defender, one of the best in their Conference, and I think they made it a point to try to not let me get the ball and get good shots off.
He did a really good job and I tried to contribute in other ways. I think I had, like, 15 rebounds or something like that.
But even in the next game, I didn't try to force anything.
Things kind of came slow from the start, hit a few shots and then from there you just get hot and start rolling. I don't think I hit my first bucket until about five or six minutes into the game.
When you finally did get hot against Maryland, what was getting into that groove feel like?
Windler: There was a point where I felt like almost everything I threw up was about to go in. And for a shooter, that's the best feeling that you can get.
All the shots you've taken in practice, all the shots you shoot in the gym, you're looking for THAT rhythm. And I caught it that game. That's the thing you try to get back every time you play. That's the feeling you want.
It seemed like Belmont had the entire arena pulling for you. Did that give you an extra push?
Windler: There was a ton of people there, a lot of people came from Belmont all the way down to Florida. So, it was a really good atmosphere.
And you know how the tournament is: everybody in the arena – even random fans just from Jacksonville – all root for the underdog. So late in that game, it was great.
You know, you hit a couple of big shots and the crowd just goes crazy. You feel like you're at a home game and you're actually five states away. Man, it was so much fun.
Was it Maryland’s size up front that did you in?
Windler: We knew it was going to be challenging; they had really good bigs.
They had (Bruno) Fernando and Jalen Smith, which is massive for the college game. Those are two NBA-sized guys.
So we knew it was gonna be tough, and they really did beat us on the boards like we figured they would. But we just kept fighting and we had a chance on the last play. That's really all you can ask for in a game like that.
How much did you lean on your experience as a senior?
Windler: Well, I was able to calm my nerves because I'd played over 100 college games at that point and had played lot of big teams in my in my career there.
So, it was obviously not just another game because it was the Tournament, but the nerves weren't too bad at all.
Do you think your Tournament showing eventually improved your stock in the Draft?
Windler: For sure. You can't really deny that the Tournament doesn't mean a lot to scouts.
People want to see how you're going to perform, whether it's under pressure or against the best teams. So I'd like to say it worked out really well.
Everything happens for a reason and that game just happened to be at the perfect time.