Belmont coach Rick Byrd has heard some of those who say his team has a chance to pull a first-round upset in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament. He doubts few of them truly mean it, though.
“I think we’re capable, and I’m glad they’re saying it because they didn’t say it the first three years at all,” Byrd said. “Us against Wisconsin on a neutral floor? Not many people are really thinking that if they have to lay their life on the line.”
The Bruins (30-4), seeded 13th in the Southeast region, make their fourth NCAA appearance (their first since 2008) Thursday when they face the fourth seed, Wisconsin (23-8), at 6:27 p.m. in Tucson, Ariz. (truTV).
As was the case in each of the previous three trips, Belmont faces a team from one of the sport’s power conferences, in this case the Big Ten. The difference is that this is the highest seeding the Bruins have had, which serves as a source of pride as well as offers a bit of confidence.
“This year has been a remarkable season for us — 30 wins, 19-1 in the conference and pulling out the A-Sun [tournament] championship,” sophomore guard Ian Clark said. “With this group of guys we have this year … not taking anything away from the other Belmont teams, but this is one of the best teams — and a lot of guys would say it — that Belmont has had in a long time.”
Belmont’s previous tournament teams all performed better than the one that preceded it.
In 2006, the Bruins lost by 34 points (78-44) to UCLA. The following year Georgetown beat them by 25 (80-55). Then came the near-miss against Duke, a 71-70 loss in the opening round of the 2008 championship event.
If that trend holds, it seems a victory — or perhaps an overtime defeat — really is at hand.
“Obviously [Wisconsin is] a great team [having] taken down No. 1 [Ohio State] earlier in the season,” senior guard Jordan Campbell said. “We know they’re going to be ready. We just have to prepare.
“Everybody goes into this tournament expecting at least one win. So we’re just going to prepare for this game and hopefully we can come out on top. It is possible.”
While the players might expect to win at least one, their coach figures there are few who truly expect his team to do so. Of course, what the players believe matters most.
“I don’t know that Belmont’s ever supposed to win a game,” Byrd said. “I think there are milestones when you are building a program like this — and one of them is being a 13 instead of a 15 — having the kind of year we had, to bypass so many good leagues and programs to go from a 16, where East Tennessee State was last year, to a 13, where we are this year.
“It’s still a lot to ask, but I think our guys are closer to believing in our chances to win this game than we were the first three times we went.”