Pundits on any number of national television networks sang the praises of Belmont’s men’s basketball team in recent days. Even before the bracket for the NCAA Tournament was set, many pointed to the Bruins as a team that could pull a first-round upset.
Once the field of 68 was revealed Sunday, it was obvious to coach Rick Byrd that his team’s chances against its first opponent, Wisconsin, it would be that old sing-along gimmick — follow the bouncing ball — that determines whether or not his team makes it beyond the first game for the first time.
The Bruins, the No. 13 seed in the Southeast region, relied heavily on their defense and the ability to create turnovers as they went 30-4 and won the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season and tournament titles.
Through their first 34 games, they are second in the NCAA in steals per game (9.8) and fifth in turnover margin. The Badgers, the No. 4 seed, lead the country in fewest turnover per game (7.5).
“That’s the first thing that comes to my mind — they really take care of the ball; they really execute; they shoot it great,” Byrd said. “They’re going to be hard to guard because they run their stuff so well.
“…I watch them during the year when I can because they’re extremely well coached.”
The teams will meet Thursday in Tucson, Ariz.
An overflow crowd of supporters packed the Beaman Student Life Center and watched along with players and coaches a giant screen television as the field was announced. Belmont’s destination and opponent were among the last revealed but were viewed as overwhelmingly positive.
The Bruins’ seed, in their fourth NCAA appearance, was the highest ever.
“It’s a really good feeling,” sophomore guard Ian Clark said. “I think this year our guys worked really hard and to get a 13 seed is really good.”
With an upset, Belmont will play wither Kansas State or Utah State in the second round on Saturday.
In their last appearance — as a 15 seed — the Bruins nearly pulled a shocker but fell 71-70 in a memorable encounter with Duke. Two players, seniors Jordan Campbell and Jon House, on the current team played in that one.
The memory of that contest, Belmont’s style of play and its conference dominance have made them a hot topic of conversation in recent days.
“There’s definitely a buzz going on around our team and on campus and everything,” House said. “We’ve had a lot of attention nationally even about our team having the potential for upsets and that kind of thing.
“… This way we don’t really have the element of surprise. They’re going to be ready for us, and they know we’re going to come hard at them. But it’s definitely been nice to get some respect nation-wide, which I think we deserve. So it has its ups and downs.”
Much like a bouncing ball.