Belmont finds itself in a familiar situation. Now comes the quest for something different.
After they locked up an automatic bid with a thrilling overtime victory over Murray State last weekend in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game, the Bruins are headed to their third straight NCAA Tournament and sixth overall.
Winless in the first five trips, Belmont hopes its experience finally will lead to a longer stay.
“Usually guys have to knock on the door in majors before they end up winning it,” coach Rick Byrd said. “Every now and then somebody will come out of nowhere and win their first major. But I just think if you’ve experienced the environment of the NCAA Tournament, the next time you go and then the next time you go it is just easier to be more comfortable and to feel like you belong.”
The are reasons to believe this is the year the Bruins finally get an NCAA tournament
• Experience: The Bruins are upperclassmen heavy with five seniors and two juniors. Nine players have played in an NCAA Tournament game and seven have played twice. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson have started the past two years. Forwards Blake Jenkins and Trevor Noack also have NCAA starts under their belt.
“The most important thing is we have a lot of guys who have played in this thing twice and have enjoyed success for four straight years,” Byrd said. “It is not like they are a 20-loss team jumping into this thing for the first time.”
• Guard play: One of the best backcourt tandems in the country, Johnson and Clark help the Bruins overcome the lack of a true big man. Both seniors, who have combined for 221 starts, are strong defenders and create matchup issues offensively. Johnson, as he showed Murray State twice last weekend, has a knack for slashing inside and twisting in for a highlight layup or drawing contact to get to the foul line. He ranks in the top 10 in the country with 210 free throw attempts. Clark keeps defenses honest on the perimeter — he ranks third in the country in 3-point shooting and has made 99 treys — but also has strengthened off the dribble and developed a pull-up jumper.
• Tested: Belmont’s non-conference schedule ranked second in the country, largely contributing to its current RPI of 18. The Bruins won at Stanford and defeated South Dakota State, Murray State and Ohio — NCAA Tournament teams a year ago. They also played at Kansas and VCU. The OVC Tournament also tested the Bruins’ mettle. They had to rally to win against both Tennessee State and Murray State. The overtime win against Murray was only the second time out of six conference championship games — the other five in the Atlantic Sun — Belmont didn’t win by more than 14 points.
• Similarities: There are a couple striking similarities to the 2008 team, which nearly upset No. 2 Duke in the third of three straight NCAA Tournament trips.
First, the 2008 team also was loaded with experience — one senior and seven juniors. Nine players had played in an NCAA Tournament before. The lone senior was guard Justin Hare — one of five who played in three NCAA Tournaments.
Another commonality is neither team had a dominant big man. Against Duke, Belmont started one player taller than 6-foot-5. This year, the Bruins biggest starters are Noack and Jenkins, both 6-7.
The Bruins’ offense centered around guards, not post play, which Byrd believes might have been detrimental in their efforts against bigger UCLA, Wisconsin and Georgetown (twice).
“The team that played Duke so well didn’t rely on that,” he said. “But it was hard for [centers] Boomer [Herndon], Andrew [House], Scott [Saunders] and Mick [Hedgepeth] to score over the players that were guarding them. They weren’t Atlantic Sun players. They were Big East players. They were Big Ten players.
“Maybe because we’re perimeter oriented maybe that’s why we have a better chance than those other four teams. Maybe that’s why we played Duke as close because we didn’t rely on the inside game.”
• Like results: Winthrop and Lehigh have been in Belmont’s position.
Winthrop was 0-6 all-time in NCAA Tournaments and had loss in consecutive years before finally breaking through with an upset of Notre Dame in 2007. While the Golden Eagles relied on post play to upend the bigger Fighting Irish, Belmont can relate to how Lehigh got its first win.
Winless in its first four trips until last year, the Mountain Hawks did what Belmont couldn’t — knock off a No. 2-seeded Duke team. Contributing to the upset was heady guard play, led by 30 points from C.J. McCollum.
But both Winthrop and Lehigh were building toward their first wins. Both had won at least 25 games that season — Belmont has won 26 — and both were guided by junior and senior leadership.
Those experiences drive these Bruins to be the first. But they also serve as a reminder to enjoy the moment.
“I don’t feel like we’re pressing for it,” Noack said. “I don’t feel like it is a must win. It is still a situation where we are going there, we’re going to do what we do, play our hardest and see what happens.”