The NCAA Tournament committee saved a best for last.
When the last team was announced in the 68-team field on Sunday, Belmont was pleasantly surprised with its best seeding in program history.
The Bruins earned a No. 11 seed in the West Region and will open against No. 6 seed Arizona on Thursday in Salt Lake City. The previous-best of 13 bestowed in 2011.
Belmont (26-6) is headed to its sixth NCAA Tournament — all in the last eight years — and third straight.
Despite locking up an automatic bid by winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship, the Bruins anxiously awaited to hear their name called in front of more than 1,000 fans at the Beaman Student Life Center.
“Isn’t that something else?” coach Rick Byrd said laughing. “We’ve been late every time but dead last? I looked at my wife Cheryl and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if they had just forgot somebody that was in? They would really be in a mess then, wouldn’t they?'
“I’m excited about an 11. It seems like most [prognosticators] who do this seriously had us as a 12. So I appreciate the committee’s confidence in our year.”
From 2006-08, the Bruins received 15 seeds for winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament title. They nearly pulled off a monumental upset in 2008 when they lost to No. 2 Duke by one point — also in the West Region. In 2011, Belmont was given a No. 13 seed after winning 30 games and was a No. 14 seed last year.
This season, the Bruins enter the tournament with an RPI of 17 and winners of 17 of their last 19. They have received votes in the national polls for the third straight year.
“It’s a surprise if you start at the beginning of the season and you tell me we were going to get the best seed we’ve gotten out of six,” Byrd said. “This team has been awfully fun to coach. It has overachieved and played with a lot of heart and never given up. They’ve obviously earned this.”
Arizona (25-7) finished the regular season ranked 18th in the country, third in the Pac-12 behind co-champs Oregon and UCLA. Like Belmont, the Wildcats are guard heavy with Xavier transfer Mark Lyons (14.8 ppg), Solomon Hill (13.4) and Nick Johnson (11.7 and 102 assists).
The Wildcats, who are playing in their second NCAA Tournament in three years, started the season 14-0 and were ranked as high as third.
This marks the first meeting between the programs. Arizona has won 43 NCAA Tournament games, reached four Final Fours and won the national championship in 1997. Belmont is still searching for its first tournament win.
“We don’t want to get too overconfident about that kind of thing,” said senior guard Ian Clark, one of nine players who have played in an NCAA Tournament game. “We’re just going to come out and play our game. Coach Byrd is saying this is one of the best teams he’s had. It is kind of hard to compare to the 30-5 team but we have a good feeling about this year.”