Belmont basketball’s continued dominance built a sphere of influence that now extends far beyond the city limits of Nashville.
Household names in basketball are difficult to come by. Yet two of Belmont’s own, Amanze Egekeze and Austin Luke, are carving out their niche in the cutthroat world of professional basketball overseas.
“Playing overseas is a different level of pressure,” said Egekeze. “As a pro out here, you’re on your own.”
Egekeze is playing his 2020-21 season in France for the team Gries Oberhoffen. He competes in the same professional league as former Belmont guard, and his former teammate, Kevin McClaine.
On the other side of Europe, Luke plays for Basketball Community Gelderland in the Dutch Basketball League.
During their four years at Belmont, each saw a shared level of success.
Egekeze averaged 10 points per game and 6.2 rebounds, shooting 49% from the field and 40% from three.
Luke averaged 6.5 points per game and 5.4 rebounds. He graduated third on Belmont’s all-time assists leaderboard, according to Belmont’s basketball record book.
In 2015, both played in an NCAA Tournament and claimed multiple Ohio Valley Conference championship appearances. Yet after graduating, the difficulties and pressures of overseas basketball stunted a majority of what they faced at Belmont in comparison.
And with the heightened pressures, comfort is the first thing thrown out when transitioning from college to professional basketball.
“I think the biggest change is the fact that that comfortability is stripped away. You are going somewhere new, a new environment and in some cases, you don’t speak the same language. And you don’t know if you’ll be there next season,” said Egekeze.
It’s the business side of the game that is most difficult to adjust to, said Luke.
“It’s been tough for me, and I think it’s been tough for a lot of guys. At Belmont, we didn’t care who scored, or stats, or any of that. Out here you are playing for a new team every year,” said Luke.
“It’s just more businesslike. If you are not putting up stats they will look at you differently.”
At Belmont, the team is a family, and they play for each other – it’s the reason the team stays competitive year in and year out, Luke said.
“It’s really the culture that’s passed down. That culture was passed down from older guys to me. And I passed it down to the younger guys,” said Luke.
This culture creates great basketball players at Belmont, but it’s this same culture that makes it somewhat difficult to transition to the business side of the game.
Still, both players adamantly say that, without Belmont, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
“Through Belmont, I achieved more than I could have ever imagined. Growing up and playing at one of the best universities in the country. I was just very fortunate,” said Luke.
Egekeze attributes the legendary head coach and Ohio Valley Conference Hall of Fame inductee Rick Byrd and his coaching staff directly for his athletic growth.
The freedom given to them within Byrd’s system helped grow their games on the court, both mentally and physically. And that is something Byrd is proud of doing for both of them.
“As a coach, I tried to find the right line to draw for the players that I coached. I didn’t want them to feel constricted,” said Byrd.
“It was always important to me to let guys feel comfortable playing the game. As shooters, they felt like they had the green light. And with Austin and Amanze, they became so comfortable playing like they wanted to.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but now they can see how Byrd prepared them both to constantly compete at a high level.
In Luke’s case, it was Byrd’s belief in him that helped him elevate his game.
“Coach Byrd really put trust in me. Even as a sophomore, I was still not great, but he trusted me to play through my mistakes. By the time I was a senior, I had full trust from him.”
“He let me play without thinking, and that’s the biggest thing.”
For Egekeze, it was Byrd giving him the freedom to stretch the floor, which provided the necessary growth in his game to make him a pro.
“Coming into play for coach Byrd was a huge step in my development as a player. He got me ready for how the game is played now,” said Egekeze. “Byrd had a bunch of plays to get me threes, so if I was going to do anything I had to make those shots.”
“The good thing about him was he let his guys have those green lights to shoot it. And honestly, it’s the reason I am a pro now. Being able to stretch the floor at my size. It opened up everything else in my game.”
The goal for Byrd was to always have his players play up to their potential. He built a culture on known expectations, nothing more and nothing less.
“Byrd doesn’t demand anything. He gives you a lot of freedom on and off the court. And he just expects you to uphold his culture and values,” said Luke.
That level of player empowerment proved vital for these two Belmont basketball alumni. It became the foundation for their next chapter in their respective basketball stories.
They became professionals because they learned how to play the game the right way – unselfishly.
With Byrd, their game reached new heights, but a twinge of pain remains over the missed NCAA Tournaments from 2016 to 2018.
Those teams shared in regular-season success, but postseason heartache. And for Luke, he feels as though his personal accomplishments are dwarfed because of the lack of postseason success.
He wishes he could have just won more games, he said.
Egekeze often finds himself thinking about how close they were to achieving the ultimate goal of playing in the NCAA Tournament year in and year out. In the end, it’s something he’s just learned to live with, he said.
However, Byrd views those three seasons as a testament to team stability. And, strangely, he sees those teams as holistically better than the tournament team in 2015.
The 2015 team made the NCAA Tournament in buzzer-beater fashion. The team was an underdog in the early days of the Murray State rivalry. And though the Bruins made the National Tournament, it was a nail-biter.
The 2016-18 teams owned their regular season, and in Byrd’s eyes, that is the most accurate measure of success.
“The true measure of basketball teams on the college level is the performance in regular-season play and winning the conference championship.”
Equally so, the great moments playing for Belmont stick with the two stars.
Between a big win over North Carolina, playing in the NCAA tournament and beating Vanderbilt in a sold-out Curb Event Center, the memorable moments pile up.
For Luke, two specifics stick out.
“Beating North Carolina at North Carolina, or beating Murray State on Taylor Barnette’s buzzer-beater. Those two moments I’ll tell my grandkids about,” said Luke.
In Egekeze’s case, the answer to his favorite moment is linked to the growth in his personhood over his time at Belmont, not to one specific moment, he said.
So, no matter where these former teammates end up playing throughout their professional careers, playing at Belmont was an important step for them. The countless joy-filled moments on the hardwood, the victories and the defeats will indelibly be linked to them wherever they go.
Belmont will always be special, said Luke.
The program helped build them, and it gave them a platform to display their craft. Without Belmont basketball providing a platform, their professional careers may not have happened.
Now both guys are just allowing the game to take them where it may — but they aren’t forgetting the program they came from.
This article written by Ian Kayanja.