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Saturday, March 5, 2011
Looking for a sleeper? Check out Belmont

By Mark Schlabach

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.

Rick Byrd
Will Rick Byrd's Bruins be able to get past the first round in the NCAA tournament?
“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:
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.

Reserves Scott Saunders, Jordan Campbell and Kerron Johnson are three of the team’s top five scorers and average at least 17.5 minutes per game.

“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.”