College Basketball Nation: Scott Saunders

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The afternoon slate of NCAA tournament games at Nationwide Arena on Friday will feature a pair of intriguing matchups. San Diego State will try to stop NC State from running away with the upset -- literally. And Belmont versus Georgetown pits one of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams against the squad that’s most equipped to defend it.

No. 11 NC State (22-12) vs. No. 6 San Diego State (26-7), 12:40 p.m. ET

Last year, San Diego State charmed the country with its surge to the Sweet 16 as former Aztecs star Kawhi Leonard led the way. But Steve Fisher lost four starters from that team. Preseason projections suggested that the Aztecs would not come close to duplicating last season’s achievements.

But this program has proved its doubters wrong this year.

The Aztecs shared the Mountain West crown with New Mexico during the regular season. They’re undersized and they’re not very deep, but they’ve held their opponents to a 40 percent shooting clip, second in the conference.

Jamaal Franklin (17.2 points per game) and Chase Tapley (15.7 ppg) are a potent duo for a program that’s overcome adversity in close games. They’re 4-0 in overtime this season.

“It helped a lot. The NCAA tournament, you get those kind of games like every night, close barn-burning games, and those games at the beginning of the year, early in the year, like UC Santa Barbara, the Creighton game, games like that really prepared us for this moment we have right now,” Tapley said.

The Aztecs have been here before. The bright lights of March are not new for the program.

When Mark Gottfried took the Wolfpack job last summer, however, he understood that he’d have to rebuild a winning tradition at NC State.

Leading the Wolfpack to its first NCAA tournament bid since 2006 is a start.

“Our banners, national championship banners are hanging in our gym,” he said. “Our guys see them every day. And they understand the tradition and the history of NC State. Been in three Final Fours, won two national championships. So our players are very well aware of that.”

There were a multitude of reasons to doubt both teams’ chances of reaching March Madness.

To stay here, however, San Diego State will have to overcome its size disadvantage and try to control the tempo against a NC State team that likes to run. The Wolfpack will have to take advantage of their athleticism and transition offense to beat the Aztecs.

NC State’s scoring offense (73.6 ppg and 81st in Ken Pomeroy’s tempo ratings) was third behind North Carolina’s and Duke’s in the ACC. C.J. Leslie (14.6 ppg) leads five Wolfpack players in double figures.

San Diego State hopes to limit NC State’s ability to fully utilize its talent by slowing the game down in a matchup against a squad that’s shooting 46.3 percent from the field.

But the Aztecs said they feel comfortable picking up the pace, too.

“[We’re] not going to get in a transition game, really pick our spots here and there and run,” SDSU’s Xavier Thames said. “And whatever they want to play, we can play. We could play a slow-down game, we could play a transition game.”

NC State has to worry about matching up with an Aztecs team that employs a four-guard set.

“I feel that we have four guys on the perimeter, including C.J. Leslie, that can guard any position, 1 through 4,” C.J. Williams said.

No. 14 Belmont (27-7) vs. No. 3 Georgetown (23-8), 3:10 p.m. ET

It seems simple.

Belmont loves the 3-ball (8.8 per game, 10th in the nation). Georgetown plays the best perimeter defense in America (27 percent 3-point field goal percentage allowed).

Something has to give when the Bruins face the Hoyas in this second-round matchup in the NCAA tournament, right?

“We gotta penetrate when we can and be strong when we penetrate and find shooters on the perimeter and hopefully get inside the defense,” Belmont’s Kerron Johnson said.

Jason Clark said Georgetown’s preparations have focused on neutralizing Belmont’s 3-point barrages.

“That’s one thing Coach [John Thompson III] has been stressing all this week at practice is defending the 3-point line, not letting them get 3-point shots,” he said.

Thompson, however, says it’s not that simple.

The Bruins like to run (13th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings) and they’re a great passing team (17.4 assists per game, fifth in the nation). Belmont’s 81.5 ppg makes the Bruins the fourth best scoring offense in America.

All-Atlantic Sun guards Ian Clark, the conference’s defensive player of the year, Drew Hanlen and Johnson anchor Belmont. But Mick Hedgepeth (double-double in conference tourney title game) and Scott Saunders (10.2 ppg, 5.0 rebounds per game) can hurt opponents inside.

“Obviously, they have a terrific shooting team, but at the same time, if you get spaced out, if you start just chasing those shooters, their post players are very good and they’re … a very good passing team," Thompson said. "… Protecting the 3-point line and stopping shooters is important, but they’re much more complex than that.”

But Belmont will need one of its best efforts of the year to upset the Hoyas. The Bruins lost to Duke by a point in their season opener. So they won’t be intimidated.

The Hoyas have shot 46.3 percent from the field, the No. 2 mark in the Big East. Otto Porter and Henry Sims could bully the Bruins inside. Hollis Thompson is dangerous from outside (44.4 percent from beyond the arc) and Jason Clark (13.9 ppg) is a gamer.

This has been a trendy upset pick since the matchup was announced on Selection Sunday. But Georgetown is a team that’s built to control the Bruins.

But the two teams expect a battle.

Both know March Madness heartbreak.

Wisconsin sent Belmont -- a team looking for its first NCAA tournament victory in its fifth appearance -- home early last year.

Georgetown has lost back-to-back opening-round games to lower seeds. The early losses damaged the Hoyas’ postseason reputation and fueled some of this season’s upset predictions.

Sims, however, said the only way to change that is to advance.

“It’s hard for people to forget what happened until you make something different happen,” he said.

Belmont crushing Atlantic Sun opponents

January, 17, 2011
1/17/11
3:43
PM ET
The Belmont Bruins are mauling their conference foes this season and are off to an 8-0 start in the Atlantic Sun. Their average margin of victory: 29 points, tops in the nation in conference domination.

They sent an emphatic message last week in routing preseason favorite Lipscomb 88-52, the worst loss for their conference rival in the NCAA and Atlantic Sun era. The Bisons never led and trailed by as many as 42 points.

"I've never been beaten like that for 40 minutes," Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said afterward. “We never were in the game. It was never in doubt."

Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who took his team to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 2006-08 isn't new at this, of course. Earlier this month, he won his 500th game at the school and appears on his way to many more through the rest of the season.

His 16-3 team is evenly balanced with 11 players averaging double figures in minutes per game and three (Ian Clark, Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth) with scoring averages in double figures.

Only Tennessee and Vanderbilt have beaten the Bruins this season, and they most recently beat Campbell by 35. Can anyone in the Atlantic Sun stop them?

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