- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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MACON, Ga. -- The most dangerous NCAA tournament first-round opponent for college basketball’s heavyweights has a 30-4 record and has lost one game since Christmas Day.
The Belmont Bruins, who scared the you-know-what out of mighty Duke in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament, is going back to the Big Dance for the fourth time in six seasons.
The top-seeded Bruins blasted No. 6 seed North Florida 87-46 in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game at University Center on Saturday night, becoming the second team to punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
And the Nashville school with about 5,900 students, which counts country singers Vince Gill and Amy Grant among its biggest fans, might be a legitimate threat to get past the first round this time.
“They’re going to be a very tough out,” said North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll, a former Baylor assistant.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knows all too well how dangerous Belmont can be. In their last NCAA appearance, the Bruins nearly pulled off one of the tournament’s biggest upsets. No. 15-seeded Belmont held a 70-69 lead over Duke with 2:02 to play in a first-round game in Washington, D.C. But guard Gerald Henderson bailed out the Blue Devils with a winning shot with 11.9 seconds in a 71-70 victory.
Thanks to Belmont coach Rick Byrd’s unique system -- 11 of his players play at least 10 minutes per game and none of them play more than 25 -- this Bruins squad might be even better than ’08.
You want Cinderella? Consider these facts:
Three of the Bruins’ four losses came against SEC schools back in November and December. In the NIT, Belmont came back from a 17-point deficit and had a couple of chances to tie Tennessee in the final minutes, before falling 85-76 in its Nov. 16 opener. In a rematch against the Volunteers on Dec. 23, Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson hit the winning layup with 5.7 seconds left in UT’s 66-65 win. The Bruins also led Vanderbilt 35-32 at the half before losing 85-76 at Memorial Gym in Nashville on Dec. 4.
Belmont might be the deepest team in college basketball. The Bruins have 11 players who average 10 minutes or more, and sophomore guard Ian Clark leads the team with just under 25 minutes per game. Every player is capable of scoring, too, with 10 of its 11 regulars taking 100 shots or more this season. Going into the A-Sun tournament, Belmont’s bench averaged 40 points per game, the highest average in the country.
The Bruins are one of the country’s best 3-point shooting teams. Through March 3, they ranked No. 2 nationally with 9.5 3-pointers per game. Six Belmont players attempted 70 3-pointers or more this season and five are shooting 40 percent or better from behind the 3-point line.
The Bruins play great away from home. Since the start of the 2005-06 season, Belmont has 54 true road victories, which trails only Vermont among Division I teams. The Bruins have 13 road wins and 18 road/neutral victories this season, more than any other team in the country.
Along with 3-point shooting, Byrd has built his system around unselfish play. The Bruins rank 16th nationally in assists and they’re great at turning opponents over, averaging 9.7 steals, which is third-best in the country. The Bruins also rank among the country’s top five in turnover margin (plus-5.2).
Byrd, who has won more than 500 games in 25 seasons at Belmont, said his system allows his players to play harder in three- or four-minute spurts. He said he never planned to use such a system -- it just kind of happened.
“Everybody wants to play 35 or 40 minutes,” Byrd said. “Every one of them would like to do that, but they saw it would help our team. Last year, I came to the realization that you can ask your guys to play harder if you’re not playing them 35 minutes a game.”
The Bruins don’t even have five regular starters. Four players -- guards Clark and Drew Hanlen, center Mick Hedgepeth and forward Jon House -- have started all but one game, but Trevor Noack and Brandon Baker rotate at the other forward position.
“In a pickup game, you could have a guy make the first five picks on our team and there’s a pretty good chance the other guy could pick just as good of a team,” Byrd said.
The Ospreys, who were attempting to become the first A-Sun team to beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the conference tournament, were no match for the Bruins. Belmont had 23 offensive rebounds, 21 assists and 12 steals. They made nine 3-pointers and shot better than 50 percent from the floor.
“Even in the tournament, when he probably wanted to leave guys in, he stuck with the system,” Clark said. “I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”
In every hustle statistic, the Bruins out-hustled their opponent.
“Nobody plays more than 25 minutes,” Driscoll said. “You could argue their second team is as talented as their first team.”
And you could certainly argue this Belmont team is as much of a threat as the ’08 squad that had Duke on the ropes.
One would think the Bruins won’t have to beat a No. 2 seed in the first round to prove it. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Bruins pegged as a 13th seed heading into Saturday’s action.
“Thirty Division I wins is a lot of wins, and I hope it earns some respect with the committee,” Byrd said. “[If you’re a] 15 or 16 [seed], you’re going to have a hard time winning the game and we know that. Hopefully, we’re better than that. It will give us more of a fighting chance and more optimism going into the game.”