Belmont has been to two straight NCAA Tournaments.
The final part of the journey to a third starts today when the Atlantic Sun tournament tips off at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena.
For every team in the league, it represents a clean slate as three straight wins in the tournament results in an NCAA berth. The Bruins have won the A-Sun tournament two years in a row.
But Bruins coach Rick Byrd — the Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year — doesn’t know if that experience will help much this week.
“I don’t know how you measure (experience),” Byrd said. “We had no experience in winning it before we won it, but we did. Confidence is beneficial. You hope they’re comfortable.”
The Bruins were plenty comfortable in the regular season, finishing with a with a 22-8 record overall and a 14-2 mark in the A-Sun. Belmont won the regular season league title and comes in as the No. 1 seed and favorite to win.
But tonight Belmont plays No. 8 seed Campbell at 8:15 — a team it lost to on the road this season.
“We’ve played Campbell twice and we’ve each won two times,” Byrd said. “We might be considered the favorite, but being the favorite doesn’t get you any points on the board to start the game.”
Byrd noted Campbell’s 83-75 win over the Bruins on Jan. 5, saying, “That’s not a recipe for overconfidence.”
Belmont star Justin Hare, a first team All-Atlantic Sun pick, says he’s glad about another advantage Belmont has over most of the league teams in the tournament — the fact they don’t have to travel.
“I think that’s nice,” Hare said. “It allows us not to have to travel. We just take a quick bus ride over to Lipscomb.”
Hare, a senior, averaged 15 points per game for the Bruins this season and has established himself as one of the best players in program history. Now his college career could end at any time with a loss, something of which he’s well aware.
“I’ve thought about it. There’s not many games left in my college basketball career,” Hare said. “I’m definitely trying to take advantage of it.”
Host Bisons confident
Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson entered the season saying his team had a goal to win every game at home — meaning the Bisons would win the A-Sun tournament and clinch an NCAA berth.
The Bisons didn’t go unbeaten at home, but they did finish the season strong. The injection of a number of freshmen in the lineup sparked a turnaround that saw them win seven of their nine games in February.
Freshman post player Adnan Hodzic averaged 22.5 points in the Bisons’ last two regular season games and freshman guard Josh Slater starred down the stretch of the season.
“Adnan has really stepped up and become a presence inside,” Sanderson said. “Josh Slater in the last 10, 12 games was pretty good at the point guard spot.”
But to go anywhere in the tournament, the No. 5 seed Bisons will first have to beat No. 4 seed ETSU — one of the teams they lost to in February. He says he has confidence in his freshmen to be up to the task.
“It’s a great opportunity this early in their career to have this big an impact on games,” Sanderson said.