Looking for sexy underdog in this year’s NCAA tournament? Look no further than the Belmont Bruins.
They’ve got just about everything a Cinderella could want: experience, depth, coaching and the ability to score in spurts.
Oh yeah.They also happen to be really, really good.
Belmont crushed North Florida in the Atlantic Sun championship game Saturday, 87-46. The previous record for margin of victory in the A-Sun title game was 28. That’s on top of a season in which the Bruins went 19-1 in conference play and 30-4 overall. Any time a team hits 30 wins, that’s a good sign. And when they’ve hit 30 wins the way Belmont has, it’s even better.
“I’m sick. I’m sick,” North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll said about the blowout. “They’re going to be a very difficult out.
Belmont’s defense forces turnovers at the second-highest rate in D-I. It’s in the top 15 in shooting, the top 25 in offensive rebounding percentage and the top 35 in defensive eFG%. Maybe that’s because coach Rick Byrd uses 11 guys extensively, all of whom expend maximum effort while on the court. You worried about a frenetic defense? This is it.
The Bruins’ only losses were to Tennessee (twice, by a combined 10 points), Vandy and rival Lipscomb. All four losses were on the road.
“I don’t really know what to say about this team. Thirty wins was just not even thought about,” said Byrd, who just missed being the first A-Sun coach to win an NCAA tournament game when Duke held on in 2008. “For guys to agree and play as hard as they can for you in a new system, that we all just kind of fell into this year, is so unselfish. It takes a level of unselfishness for guys one through 12 or 13 to all do that and do it without complaint.
“I couldn’t coach a better team.”
And, like any good underdog should, they shoot the 3. They make nearly 10 a game and have five who are hitting 40 percent or better.
Honestly, it’s as if the Bruins knew this was inevitable. Byrd’s guys knew this style would be ideal for pulling off a few upsets in March. And that’s what they’re going for.
“In the tournament, probably when he wanted to keep some guys in, he stuck to the system, and I think it really helps us in the long run,” sophomore Ian Clark, the team’s leading scorer, said of the its depth. “It will help us in the tournament as well seeing as other teams probably won’t sub as much as our system, and it could help us in the last minutes of the game in a big game in the NCAA tournament.”
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