NASHVILLE, Tenn – Belmont’s chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament died a long time ago. If it wasn’t when the Bruins came up short in their upset bids at Duke and at Memphis, then it was when they had a stretch of three losses in four games against the likes of Marshall, Miami OH and Middle Tennessee State.
When you play in a conference like the Atlantic Sun, you can’t lose three games to teams that have no shot of getting an at-large bid and still expect the committee to call your name come Selection Sunday without your league’s auto-bid. You just can’t.
But that doesn’t mean that the Bruins are incapable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t mean that they have no shot of making it to the second weekend, something that a lot of folks had speculated was possible back in October. And while losing to Lipscomb at the Curb Center after blowing a 12 point lead in the final 12 minutes is going to sting, it certainly doesn’t alter the talent level on this team.
As the saying goes, in a rivalry game, you can throw the records out.
“I felt that the team that wanted to win, and played the hardest, won the game tonight,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said after the game. “Their kids deserve a great deal of credit. They made hustle plays. They got loose balls, offensive rebounds, and long rebounds. I told our team that the team that plays hard, the breaks seem to fall their way.”
“This was an upset, based on where the teams were at the time, and how they’ve played to this point, but they outplayed us and deserved to win.”
Frankly, Byrd is probably right when he calls this game an upset.
Coming in, Lipscomb was 6-9 on the season and 2-2 in conference play. They had lost five of their last six games, including a 21 point drubbing at North Florida on Wednesday, and while this was technically a road game for the Bison, it was the first time they had played a game in Nashville in exactly one month to the day.
It was also the best game that Lipscomb has played all season long. The Bison put six players in double figures, led by 17 points from Jacob Arnett, 16 points from Jordan Burgason and the best all-around performance of Justin Glenn’s career — 14 points on 5-6 shooting, 10 boards, six assists, five blocks and four steals.
It was Arnett and freshman Deonte Alexander who sparked a 28-6 Lipscomb run to close the game. Alexander, in particular, had a big finish to the game, scoring eight points in a four minute span that included a banked-in 28 footer that gave Lipscomb their first lead of the second half with 3:53 left in the game.
“He told me he called it,” Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said after the game, which Alexander, who gave the rowdy Belmont student section the double three-goggles as he hopped back down court, immediately confirmed: “I did.”
As well as Lipscomb played, this was a bit of a fluky loss for the Bruins. Outside of Ian Clark — who was simply outstanding, finishing with 28 points (including seven threes), six boards and five assists — no one on Belmont played well. Their front line of Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth got out-muscled by the burly Justin Glenn, finishing with a combined 11 points and nine points. They came in averaging 19.3 ppg and 12.0 rpg combined.
“They were collapsing on them as soon as they caught it, so we had to hope to get some in and out scoring,” Byrd said. “When we’ve got Mick out there, his man would double, and we didn’t take advantage of that with him cutting to the basket like we could have.”
And while I’m sure Glenn would love for me to give all of the credit for those struggles to his play defensively, the fact of the matter is that Lipscomb’s game-plan had just as much to do with that performance as anything. Every single time that Hedgepeth and Saunders touched the ball on the block, they got double-teamed. Neither of them would get put in the same sentence as, say, Chris Webber for their ability to find open teammates out of the post, but both Hedgepeth and Saunders are certainly capable of recognizing and finding the open man.
They did a solid job of that on Friday night as well.
No one on Belmont’s perimeter was able to finish the open opportunities they got as a result of that ball-movement. JJ Mann was 4-14 from the floor and 2-11 from three. Kerron Johnson, who is one of the more exciting point guards in the country to watch, was 4-15 from the floor and 0-5 from three. In fact, if you take away the 8-15 that Clark shot and the 7-11 that he made from beyond the arc, the Bruins made just 6-25 from deep and shot a frigid 35.3% from the floor.
For Johnson, the struggles were more than just his ability to shoot the ball. Byrd gives him a long leash when it comes to attacking the basket, and deservedly so. Johnson is quick as lightening, left-handed and capable of finishing over bigger defenders in the paint. That’s a good combination for a point guard to be. But on Friday, he overpenetrated, he threw the ball away and he missed far too many open looks from the perimeter. More importantly, he played poorly defensively. After Alexander banked in the three to take the lead, Johnson missed shots on the next two possessions while getting beat on the same play — a UCLA cut for a layup — twice.
You simply are not going to see Johnson play that way too often.
And you are not going to see Belmont get the kind of performance they got out of Hedgepeth, Saunders, Johnson and Mann too often.
But there was more to this loss than simply an off-night. In fact, there are a couple of issues with this Belmont team that seem to be chronically plaguing them this year.
The biggest issue may actually be the loss of Jon House. House wasn’t a big scorer (just 5.3 ppg in 19.0 mpg), but he was Belmont’s glue-guy. He was the guy that guarded their best wing player and the guy that dove on the floor and got that key loose ball and the guy that set a screen to free a shooter. He did the things that don’t show up in the box score that help a team win, and Belmont hasn’t found someone to effectively fill that role yet.
The other issue is that sophomore JJ Mann hasn’t been able to fill Jordan Campbell’s shoes. Campbell shot 46.8% from three as a senior. He didn’t miss. Neither does Clark, and when you have Johnson penetrating with two shooters on the wings that defenders absolutely cannot leave, well, that’s a good thing. Mann has improved on the 32.7% he shot as a freshman, but he’s far too streaky with his jump shot. When he gets it going, he can make four or five in a row. But when he’s off, you see games like Friday. And he’s had too many games like Friday of late.
The Bruins have not been playing the same level of defense that they did last season, either. Their pressure forced a ton of turnovers that led to easy layups and open threes last season, and Belmont isn’t getting those same opportunities this season.
Belmont still has the pieces to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. They have a front line that is big enough to hang with a high-major team. They have a talented, play-making point guard and a big-time scorer on the wing. They have depth. They are very well-coached and, for the most part, they usually understand how to run their offense and execute defensively.
But they simply cannot have the defensive lapses and lose their composure they way they did on Friday.
Because every loss right now affects where Belmont will be seeded should they win the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid.
Belmont as a 12 seed will be a trendy pick to pull off an upset.
Belmont as a 15 seed is simply first round chum for a UConn or a Baylor.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.