Belmont Escapes At-Large Worries: Can the Bruins Break Through?Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2013
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday’s OVC Championship in Nashville.
Late in Saturday’s Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game, it looked like the college basketball world would face a week-long debate about whether Belmont, a top-25 RPI team that won the league’s regular season championship, would merit an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after falling to defending champion Murray State. The Racers appeared to be in control when they led 62-58 with fewer than 40 seconds to play in regulation. But an Ian Clark jumper and a two missed free throws from Ed Daniel set up a Kerron Johnson drive that tied the game with nine seconds remaining. Following some controversy surrounding a clock stoppage issue and Murray State calling timeout before crossing half-court, the Racers could not get a good look for the win. In overtime, after Murray State star Isaiah Canaan dribbled the ball off of his foot in a tie game with 25 seconds remaining – one of 26 Racer turnovers on the night — it was Johnson again playing the hero as he pulled up in the lane and made a high-arcing jumper over Daniel, giving the Bruins a 70-68 victory and the league’s auto-bid in their first year, as well as the 1,000th victory in program history.
Belmont is now able to avoid all talk of whether its resume was good enough to earn a coveted at-large spot in the field, and while we may never know whether it was, coach Rick Byrd is more than happy to not have to wonder. “I had thought about that question because I knew we could lose either of these games,” he said. Now, he can focus on getting his team ready for its next opponent, whoever it may be. The Bruins must sit and wait a week before finding out whether their resume was good enough to earn a seed that will give them a reasonable shot at a first-round victory, something that has eluded the program in its first five appearances in the Big Dance. There was the near-miss in 2008 against Duke that put the program on the national map, and the disappointing double-figure losses to Wisconsin and Georgetown the last two years, when the Bruins represented the Atlantic Sun. While they clearly stepped up in competition in the OVC this year, most projections, including our latest, have them in the #12-line, only a spot better than the past two seasons. So while the RPI may be higher than it has ever been for Byrd’s team, the draw his team gets may look familiar. What likely faces the Bruins is a game against a bigger, more athletic high-major squad that will present match-up issues.
But while Belmont may be faced with those problems, it will present plenty of its own, as Johnson and backcourt mate and co-OVC Player of the Year Ian Clark can hold their own against the nation’s best. While Johnson is a slashing point guard who is more effective at getting to the basket and scoring or dishing than he is knocking down a jumper, Clark is one of the nation’s most prolific three-point shooters, making 46.9% of his attempts, despite shooting nearly seven per game. His sharpshooting skills were on full display in the OVC semifinal against Tennessee State, when he made six in the second half to help the Bruins survive a scare and advance to the championship game.
While Johnson and Clark have NCAA Tournament experience, the makeup of this Belmont team is different than Byrd’s past squads. His last two teams were led by big men Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth. What those Bruins teams lacked in athleticism, they made up for in size. And it was not a combination that worked in the NCAA Tournament. This team centers around its backcourt, as Clark (18.4 PPG) and Johnson (13.8 PPG) are its two leading scorers. Whether Belmont has enough to go with its dynamic backcourt duo will determine whether it has a chance to get its first Tournament win. While neither athletic nor big on the interior, the Bruins do get solid play from 6’7 senior Trevor Noack, who leads the team in rebounding and is its third-leading scorer. Noack is not big enough to put defenders on his back and post up, but he is crafty and holds his own on the boards. His frontcourt mate, Blake Jenkins, an athletic 6’7″ junior who is undersized and offensively limited, but who is considered by Byrd to be the team’s best defender. The Bruins’ other starter is junior forward J.J. Mann. Mann is a solid three-point shooter who will struggle against athletic wings. Their bench is limited, as Johnson and Clark rarely sit. Senior forward Brandon Baker is the only reliable backup in the post, and guards Reece Chamberlain and Craig Bradshaw often spell Jenkins, giving Byrd’s already small team even less size with a three-guard lineup.
Given the lack of depth and the potential mismatches the Bruins will face in the frontcourt, it will take heroic efforts from Johnson and Clark for them to move on. They have held their own against quality competition, and are good enough to compete with any set of guards in the country. But as with most teams, the NCAA Tournament is all about match-ups for Belmont. The Bruins are a very experienced club that won’t be intimidated by any situation, and Byrd always seems to put his players in the best position to succeed. His team may not have faced nightly challenges in the OVC, but the competition was mostly solid, and they did play a tough non-conference schedule that included a win at Stanford, a competitive loss to VCU, and a blowout loss to physically superior Kansas, as well as home wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio. They have five top-100 RPI wins (though only over a top-50) team, and currently sit #18 in the RPI. When asked about where his team should end up, Byrd made it clear that he isn’t concerned about that. “I think the best thing is to trust those guys to do the best they can. It wouldn’t matter if you had the 12 Apostles in there, somebody would be upset about the outcome. I think we stand to have a good shoot at certainly the best seeding we’ve ever had,” he said.
While their seeding may only be slightly better than the prior two years, rather than focus on where the Bruins should or will be placed by the committee, Byrd can turn his squad’s attention to being prepared to go in the Big Dance after a nearly two-week layoff. In a year in which a major topic of discussion in college basketball has been parity, perhaps this is the year Belmont gets the first-round monkey off its back. It is a battle-tested team that is primed to do so. “[Winning the OVC] wasn’t our final goal. This was one of our goals, but we have one bigger goal in mind, to get past the first round,” Johnson said. After beating two good OVC clubs to win the tournament, this may just be the year the Bruins take the next step.