Belmont, UT faced with big challenges

Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 11:46pm

For the third consecutive season, the Belmont Bruins will take on a college basketball heavyweight in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Bruins, champions of the Atlantic Sun, were given a No. 15 seed and will play No. 2 seed Duke on Thursday in the West Regional in Washington, D.C. This is the third consecutive season Belmont has been a 15 seed. Two years ago, Belmont lost to UCLA and last season, BU fell to Georgetown. Both teams went on to the Final Four.

Belmont coach Rick Byrd knows his team has its work cut out for it.

“Duke is synonymous with excellence in basketball — in a lot of ways,” Byrd said. “We knew we were going to play a great team. It’s a privilege to play a program that’s accomplished as much as Duke.”

While playing powerhouse Duke is a huge challenge for the Bruins, could the NCAA Tournament experience of the last two seasons help Belmont? Byrd isn’t sure.

“We’re talking about Final Four teams,” Byrd said. “I don’t think we’re in that league yet. That (the experience against UCLA and Georgetown) could help us when we play Duke. We’re just playing the guys in the white jerseys and not the name on them.”

Duke is led by guard DeMarcus Nelson, who averaged 15.2 points per game this season.

“I saw their entire game against (North) Carolina when they beat Carolina and I was very impressed,” Byrd said. “There’s a whole host of things we could write down of thing’s we’ll have to do well.”

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee may feel like the tournament committee didn’t do them any favors. The Volunteers won the SEC regular season championship, beat then-No. 1 ranked Memphis on the road and had the highest RPI ranking in the country.

Still, an upset loss to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament likely hurt the Vols, as they were given the No. 2 seed in the East Regional.

That puts the Volunteers on a collision course with No. 1 seed North Carolina, which was named the tournament’s top seed overall.

“We’re disappointed about being (a No. 2 seed) because of the body of work,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said at a NCAA Tournament selection party in Knoxville. “It’s not a different road to get to the Final Four. It’s the same road we’ve got to travel.”

Tennessee will start the tournament in Birmingham, Ala., against No. 15 seed American University on Friday.

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