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Dylan Windler focuses on senior season amidst NBA hype

Multi-sport athletes often need to make tough decisions when choosing which sport make a priority. For Belmont basketball star Dylan Windler, that meant deciding between basketball and golf.

Windler decided to take the golf route during his first three summers of high school instead of playing in Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournaments. This kept him off many schools’ radars when basketball recruiting came around.

It wasn’t until the summer after his junior year that Windler decided to play on an AAU basketball team.

“I got offered a really good spot on a really good team, Indiana Elite in the Adidas circuit. I was like, I’m gonna give this a shot,” said Windler.

Not long after Windler’s first AAU tournament, he started getting offers from many different college basketball programs.

Luckily for the Bruins, Belmont’s coaching staff had gotten a head start with recruiting Windler after former assistant coach Mark Price made a trip to Perry Meridian High School to see him practice.

“Normally we would’ve seen him play on an AAU team and had him on a list, and so would a lot of other people. But because he didn’t play summer basketball, he was a little bit of an under-the-radar guy,” said Belmont basketball head coach Rick Byrd. “If he had probably a little more exposure at an earlier time, he wouldn’t be playing at a mid-major program.”

Windler had an immediate impact on the team during his freshman year, playing in 32 games — including a start against Georgia in the National Invitational Tournament.

From the first time they played together, Windler’s teammate Mack Mercer knew there was something special about Windler.

“He came in as kind of more of an unknown player. But when he first came on campus and played with us, I knew right away that he was kind of a different player than everyone else,” said Mercer.

About four years later, Windler is now an all-conference player and has become the go-to playmaker for the Bruins. He is coming off a season where he averaged 17.0 points per game, 9.0 rebounds per game, 2.5 assists per game and shot 40 percent from the 3-point line.

But there is more to Dylan Windler than just the numbers.

As one of two active seniors on this year’s team, Windler has become a leader to the Bruins’ nine freshmen and to the other younger players on the team.

“He’s taught me how to have a work ethic and how to be responsible,” said sophomore teammate Nick Hopkins. “If I don’t communicate during the game, he gets onto me, so then I can learn from that.”

Windler recognizes the importance of leadership for a team, but he’s had to adjust to being that leader as he gets ready to enter his senior season, he said.

“It’s a hard thing to be. It takes a lot of characteristics that you have to grow over time,” said Windler. “My coaches always hound on me every day in practice, because this is the year that I need to be a big leader for our team.”

Coaches have already seen how Windler’s presence has become stronger in practices. Though he may be known for being quiet and laid back, he is stepping up to be the captain the team needs, said assistant coach Brian Ayers.

“Dylan will be the first one to tell you that he’s sort of a quiet guy,” Ayers said. “It has been noticeable this first month back that he has been more vocal. And this program of continuity, the juniors and seniors, it’s sort of their responsibility to get the younger guys on the right page.”

On top of the pressure of leading an inexperienced team through a difficult non-conference schedule, Windler also has to face some of the highest expectations a Belmont basketball player has ever seen.

In October, Windler was ranked as the 87th best college basketball player in CBS Sports’ rankings of “the top 100 (and one) best players for the 2018-19 season.”

He was also ranked at No. 46 on Bleacher Report’s “Top 50 2019 NBA Draft Big Board: Top 50 College Prospects to Watch.”

Because of his size, great shooting ability and fantastic defense, Windler could be one of the best players coach Byrd has ever worked with, Byrd said.

“He’s got a near full package,” said Byrd. “He can shoot it, he can drive it, he can rebound it on both ends of the floor, he can block shots, he can defend you.”

Windler reminds Byrd of another Belmont basketball standout, 2013 graduate Ian Clark.

In Clark’s senior year, he was named Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. He then was an undrafted free agent in the NBA after graduating from Belmont in 2013. Just 5 years later, Clark plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. Clark is the only division 1 era Bruin to ever play in the NBA.

“Ian Clark was like Dylan, not the strongest guy in the world,” Byrd said. “But he was 6 foot 3 inches, not 6 foot 7 inches. That just gives Dylan an advantage.”

Regardless of what happens after graduation, Windler will leave a strong legacy at Belmont, Hopkins said.

“His name’s gonna be in the books for years to come. He’s one of those players up there with Evan Bradds and Ian Clark. He’s gonna be a name to remember.”

Though the NBA talk is real, Windler’s focus will be on this upcoming season. All eyes will be on him due to the lack of experience on the team and the absence of Mercer after a season-ending injury.

“He needs to be a player of the year candidate type of performer for us to have the season we want,” said Ayers.

Judging by the OVC preseason rankings, it looks like Windler and the Bruins have a shot. In October, Windler was named the OVC Preseason Player of the Year, and Belmont was picked as the favorite to win the OVC.

“It’s the first time I’ve gotten some of the hype. I just know I’ve got to take it lightly and know what I’ve done last season doesn’t translate to this season. I’ve still got to put in the same work to create those same results,” said Windler.

Windler knows his focus needs to be on winning the OVC and taking the Bruins back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years, he said.

“I’m not too worried about stats, but just playing really well this season and eventually the NCAA tournament. To win that first game that this school has never gotten. So, I think that would be something really remarkable and a great way to go out for sure.”

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