Night Line: Another Blemish Jeopardizes Belmont’s At-Large ChancesPosted by EJacoby on December 14th, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
Coming off a 30-win season and returning nine players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game, Belmont was expected to be the next mid-major to make its way on to the national scene this year. After a tremendous season-opening game in Cameron Indoor Stadium in which they nearly took down Duke, the Bruins left a great first impression on the nation. But fast-forward to Tuesday night when the Atlantic Sun darlings lost another close road game (at Middle Tennessee State), and this team still has yet to produce a signature non-conference win on its resume. While Belmont consistently has the look of an NCAA Tournament team, it seems that they’ll have to earn their invitation to the Big Dance the traditional way, by winning the conference tournament.
Rick Byrd’s team has now squandered three excellent chances for quality wins, and an at-large bid seems nearly out of the question, regardless of how the Bruins play the rest of the season. Belmont played Duke to a classic season-opening one-point loss, but followed up that game with a poor effort at Memphis in which they allowed 97 points to a team now falling fast. The Bruins held on to beat this same Middle Tennessee State team after two overtimes on November 20, but Tuesday’s rematch saw their opponent come out victorious, 65-62. MTSU at 10-2 is a solid team and likely the class of the Sun Belt Conference, so a road sweep of the Blue Raiders would have looked impressive on their resume. Instead, Belmont now can only boast of a split against MTSU and a close loss at Duke as their non-conference highlights thus far.
Looking at the upcoming schedule, Belmont will play a home-away set of games against a good Marshall team (6-2, with wins at Cincinnati and versus Iona), but a sweep of the Thundering Herd is the best that this team could offer in terms of impact wins, and neither of those two games is a guaranteed win. The Bruins also play at Miami (Ohio) and Austin Peay, both of which looked like challenging games before the season, but those two teams now have a combined 4-14 record. Belmont then heads into Atlantic Sun Conference play where there is not another quality team in the league. Even if, theoretically, the Bruins were to win out the rest of their regular season games and then lose in their conference tournament championship game, this team would finish with the same 30-4 record that it had last year. But last year’s Bruins had won their conference tournament, and still only got a #13 seed in the Big Dance. Without any noteworthy resume wins, it likely wouldn’t mean that this year’s team would get rewarded with an at-large bid. Even though every season’s tournament ‘bubble’ is filled with a different caliber of candidates, there’s no way that Rick Byrd’s team can now bank on being selected to partake in March Madness on resume alone.
Instead, Belmont needs to earn their way in yet again. The only way to do so? Win the Atlantic Sun Tournament. It shouldn’t be a difficult task; Belmont has thus far blown away its two conference competitors and last year went 22-1 against A-Sun competition. The Bruins, even after facing some tough opponents, currently rank ninth in the nation with a 116.1 offensive efficiency. They average 81.6 points per game, 13th in the country, and score 1.16 points per possession, good for ninth in the nation as well. The next best team in the A-Sun is #122 in the country in points per possession. Belmont ranks in the top 30 nationally in several other offensive statistics including assist-to-turnover ratio, true shooting percentage, and three pointers made. With a balanced scoring attack, the Bruins should again overwhelm their conference foes. Ian Clark, Kerron Johnson, Drew Hanlen, and JJ Mann are all guards that average at least 10 points per game while shooting 43% or better from the field. Johnson dishes out an impressive 5.8 assists per game, while the other three all make at least three three-pointers per contest. Six other players on the roster average 10 minutes per game or more, so the Bruins have depth too.
This Belmont team has plenty of talent and a collection of veteran players that can rain three-point shots and fill up the stat sheet. In some ways, they’re similar to VCU from a year ago that shot its way to an unfathomable Final Four berth (the Rams ranked second nationally in three-point makes). But Shaka Smart’s team had numerous quality wins on its resume, such as UCLA, Old Dominion, Wichita State, and George Mason. The 2011-12 Belmont Bruins won’t have an equally compelling argument for an at-large bid. It will be awhile before we hear from Belmont, but don’t forget what you’ve seen from them in case they do get the job done at the A-Sun Tournament and once again show up on your brackets in March.