At 10 p.m. on an otherwise quiet night in Nashville last year, Belmont guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark were chatting in their living room with some teammates when an argument erupted over who was the fastest player on the team.
Naturally, Johnson and Clark suggested they settle the debate the only logical way: With a race.
Not bothering to wait until it was light outside, Johnson, Clark, guard Drew Hanlen and forwards Blake Jenkins and J.J. Mann went downstairs, created a makeshift starting line on the street and designated a finish line about 50 yards away. Then, once the starter gave the signal, they each sprinted down the street into the darkness in search of team-wide bragging rights.
"I won, Blake was second and Ian was a close third," Johnson said with a chuckle. "Anytime the subject of athleticism comes up, I remind Ian of that."
The same competitive streak that inspired that impromptu late-night race has helped Johnson and Clark bring out the best in each other on the basketball court throughout their Belmont careers. From shooting competitions after practice, to fierce one-on-one battles during the offseason, to contests over who can do the most reps in the weight room, the two close friends and roommates push each other every day to achieve their full potential.
What that constant competition has forged is an elite backcourt that has spearheaded Belmont's rise into contention for an at-large NCAA tournament bid. The Bruins boast a 19-4 overall record, a Top 25 RPI and a spotless 10-0 Ohio Valley Conference record entering Thursday night's showdown at preseason league favorite Murray State (16-5, 7-2).
Clark, last year's Atlantic Sun defensive player of the year, has stymied opposing wings while also scoring a career-high 18.9 points per game and sinking an incredible 57.8 percent of his field goals and 51.4 percent of his 3-pointers. Johnson, a speedy point guard with a knack for scoring or distributing off the dribble, is averaging 13.7 points, 4.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game.
"I suspect that with both of their desire to be the best they can be, when the guy next to you is playing great, you want to play just as great," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "Not in a selfish way because they're great friends, but it just stands to reason that excellence pushes you. When you play with and against better competition, if you're made of anything, it pushes you to be better."
Ian Clark and Rick Byrd celebrate last year's Atlantic Sun title (USA Today Sports Images)The bond between Clark and Johnson began to form soon after they arrived on campus the summer before their freshman year and learned they would be rooming with one-another.
Clark, a quiet Memphis native whose hobbies were watching movies and playing video games, mostly stayed in his room his first few weeks on campus and usually spoke only when someone spoke to him. Johnson, an effervescent Huntsville native who made new friends effortlessly, gradually drew his new roommate out of his shell first by making an effort to get to know him and later by introducing him to new people.
"When I first got here, I was more laid-back and I kind of kept to myself," Clark said. "He was an outgoing person. He helped me get to know people. That helped me on and off the floor. By watching him, I've learned to be a more vocal leader."
As Clark and Johnson got to know each-other better, they quickly realized they were more similar than different. They both worked relentlessly to become better basketball players and they both cared deeply about elevating Belmont from a successful but little-known perennial league contender to a nationally renowned mid-major powerhouse.
As Belmont shared the Atlantic Sun Conference title in 2010 and dominated the league in 2011 en route to an NCAA bid, Clark and Johnson sparred with one-another daily in practice.
Guarding Johnson forced Clark to improve his lateral quickness because his roommate was much faster than players he was accustomed to checking. Guarding Clark taught Johnson to be a tougher, more cerebral defender because he knew the sharp shooter would make him pay for not fighting through screens or closing out quickly enough.
"We just harassed each other every day," Johnson said. "We both wanted to be the best player on the court. When you're constantly going up against somebody's best every day in practice, you have no choice but to give your best or you're going to get embarrassed."
When Johnson joined Clark in the Belmont starting lineup last season, their focus in practice switched from outdoing one-another to playing off each other.
What they found was Johnson's ability to get in the lane, draw help defense and create for teammates complemented Clark's outside shooting prowess extremely well. And in turn, Clark's gradual improvement as a playmaker and a scorer off the dribble took pressure off Johnson to always be the one creating.
Not having to guard each other every day in practice didn't diminish the competitiveness between Johnson and Clark. They channeled that into other areas such as who finished conditioning faster and who sank more jump shots out of 10 from the same spot on the floor.
"Last year, if I didn't make nine threes, I wasn't going to win," Johnson said with a laugh. "Now I have to make 10 threes to have a shot."
Whereas Johnson and Clark have merely been cogs in Byrd's trademark motion offense their first three years at Belmont, they've thrived this season in part because the system is tailored around them.
The graduation of reliable big men Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth left Byrd without a consistent interior scorer to plug into his usual four-out, one-in sets. As a result, Byrd installed a more ball screen-heavy offense designed to showcase his guards and play to the playmaking strengths of Johnson.
Asked whether he was excited about the change, Johnson admitted he was "ecstatic."
Clark was also enthusiastic, noting a motion offense was suited to the personnel Belmont had previously but now the current system is "a great fit."
With Belmont lacking proven interior scorers and entering a league featuring highly regarded Murray State and a handful of other quality programs, expectations for the Bruins were a bit lower than the previous two seasons. That fueled Johnson, Clark and their teammates during offseason workouts and preseason practices.
The result has been a Belmont team that doesn't resemble past incarnations but is every bit as good.
Johnson and Clark helped hold Stanford guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright to combined 2 of 21 shooting in an upset win in Palo Alto on Nov. 18. The duo also played a role in limiting South Dakota State and Middle Tennessee to sub-30 percent shooting in December. And they've teamed with fellow senior Trevor Noack and juniors Jenkins and Mann to shoulder the scoring load, enabling Belmont to notch all but two of its league victories by at least 10 points.
"We came into this season on a mission and it's going a little better than we expected, honestly," Johnson said. "This senior class has really bought into what Coach Byrd has preached to us all year and that's to play good defense, to believe in ourselves and to trust in the system. I think you're seeing the results of that."
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