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MMR: Bruins eye Atlantic Sun tourney

Kerron Johnson doesn't like the potential scenario, but he accepts it.
"I think we'd be heartbroken," said Johnson, Belmont's leading scorer at 14.1 ppg, about the possibility that the team could win the Atlantic Sun title but miss the NCAA tournament by losing in the conference tournament.

Belmont's current plight rivals that of a multitude of mid-majors that have fallen short of the sexy résumé that sends the nation's bigger programs into the at-large pool each year on Selection Sunday.

The Bruins opened the season against Duke and Memphis, both nationally ranked at the time, but couldn't pull off an upset in either contest.

They've split games against Middle Tennessee State and Marshall. Conference losses to Lipscomb and USC Upstate really dented their at-large plans.
With two more games to play -- the Bruins beat USC Upstate 88-79 on Monday night -- they have already grabbed a share of the Atlantic Sun title for the fifth time in seven seasons. But they probably won't seize a trip to the NCAA tournament (they're ranked 70th in the RPI) unless they cut down the nets in Macon, Ga., site of the conference tournament.

"As far as an at-large bid, it would have been nice to be in the running for that. We know we're not and it makes us a hungrier team," Johnson said. "It just makes us that much more determined, that much more hungry, desperate. Those teams are the ones that make runs in the NCAA tournament, the teams that get hot at the right time."

Senior Mick Hedgepeth, however, said regular-season champions in mid-major leagues deserve more at-large consideration in situations where the conference tournament champ and regular-season victor are different.

"I would say that it's harder to win a regular-season championship and that truly reflects the best team in the conference more so than the conference tournament champion," he said. "Upsets happen and basketball's a funny game. At the same time, I can see the other side of the argument."

But Hedgepeth, like his teammates, doesn't make excuses for Belmont's predicament. The Bruins (22-7, 14-2 Atlantic Sun) put themselves in this position. And now, their goal is to win the rest of their games and earn another trip to the NCAA tourney (they lost to Wisconsin in the first round last season).

"We understand that playing teams close doesn't get it done all the time. We don't pride ourselves on moral victories," Johnson said. "Us losing to Duke by one is the same thing as maybe Maryland losing to Duke by one. It's not a win. … You have to get those wins. We've put ourselves in a position where we have to win out. And we're fine with that."

But the Bruins, who returned four starters from last season's 30-win team, have finished strong, winning nine in a row.

They're third in the nation in scoring (82.3 ppg) and are in the top 20 in assists (17.8 per game, sixth) and field goal percentage (48.6, 17th). And they've held their opponents to a 43 percent clip from the field, which ranks second in the Atlantic Sun.
Johnson said the team will treat its remaining slate like college football teams view their seasons, knowing that one loss can change everything at the BCS level.

"We feel like we're playing for a lot more. Every game means something for us," Johnson said. "It's that kind of college football feel where every game matters. You can't take a night off."

Five individual performances you might have missed

Jamelle Hagins (Delaware): The 6-foot-8 junior forward scored 14 points and grabbed 18 rebounds during Delaware's 71-57 road win over Hofstra on Feb. 14 and recorded 15 boards in a 68-64 victory against Hampton on Saturday.

Jake Odum (Indiana State): What an up-and-down week for the sophomore guard. He finished with 34 points (17-of-21 from the charity stripe), seven rebounds and seven assists during his squad's 83-77 overtime win against Illinois State on Feb. 14. But he went scoreless in a 75-54 road loss against Butler on Saturday.

Darrion Pellum (Hampton): The 6-foot-6 senior guard finished with this impressive stat line in his team's 82-62 victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore on Wednesday: 33 points, five rebounds, two assists and six steals.

Doug McDermott (Creighton): The sophomore and national player of the year candidate gave the Bluejays 36 points (14-for-20) and 11 rebounds during Creighton's 81-79 victory over a talented Long Beach State squad Saturday.

Javier Carter (South Alabama): The 6-6 forward finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks in South Alabama's 66-61 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday. The entire Hilltoppers squad recorded six blocks in that matchup.

Five recent scores you might have missed

George Mason 62, VCU 61 (Feb. 14): Sherrod Wright nailed a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal the victory for the Patriots. The Rams' Briante Weber hit 1 of 2 free throws with 3.8 seconds on the clock to put VCU up by two. But Wright came back on the other end and hit the improbable trey. Ryan Pearson's 24 points helped the Patriots overcome 16 turnovers.

Loyola Marymount 75, Saint Mary's 60 (Wednesday): Loyola Marymount's Drew Viney led all scorers with 17 points as the Lions pulled off the upset over the Gaels on the road and shook up the WCC race. The Gaels committed 14 turnovers and shot 6-for-28 from the 3-point line. The Lions followed up the victory with a 61-53 win against Horizon League leader Valparaiso on Friday.

Drexel 69, Cleveland State 49 (Saturday): Add the Dragons to your list of March Madness sleepers if their name is called on Selection Sunday. The Dragons have a harassing defense that's disrupted the CAA all season. Cleveland State made just 27 percent of its shot attempts in the loss. Freshman Damion Lee led the Dragons with 18 points.

San Francisco 66, Gonzaga 65 (Saturday): It wasn't a BracketBusters matchup, but this game certainly affected Gonzaga's WCC title hopes and potential NCAA tourney seed. Rashad Green hit the game winner for San Francisco with 3.3 seconds on the game clock. Green led four Dons in double figures with 16 points.

Iona 90, Nevada 84 (Saturday): This is why the Gaels will be dangerous in March if they crack the field of 68. Their talented offense can match just about any offensive attack in the country. They shot 62 percent from the field against the WAC's top scoring defense.

Five games you don't want to miss

Evansville at Creighton (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET, Tuesday): The Bluejays don't control their own fate in the Missouri Valley, but they can certainly get revenge in this matchup. On Feb. 7, they lost 65-57 at Evansville, part of a three-game losing skid.

No. 12 Murray State at Tennessee State (ESPNU/ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET, Thursday): Tennessee State's 72-68 road victory over the Racers on Feb. 9 ruined Murray State's chances of a perfect regular season. Another loss to the Tigers could affect the Racers' postseason. In a bad way.

BYU at Gonzaga (ESPN2/ESPN3, 11 p.m. ET, Thursday): A pivotal matchup in the West Coast Conference. Both BYU and Gonzaga entered the week one game behind Saint Mary's in the race for the conference title with identical 11-3 records. The Cougars won the first meeting.

George Mason at Virginia Commonwealth (ESPN2/ESPN3, 6 p.m. ET, Saturday): On Valentine's Day, George Mason defeated VCU on a buzzer-beater (62-61). In Richmond, VCU will have an opportunity to avenge that loss and keep its CAA title hopes alive. George Mason was tied with Drexel at 14-2, while VCU was one game behind both teams at 13-3 entering the week. Both George Mason and VCU lost to Drexel earlier this season.

Butler at Valparaiso (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET, Friday): I guess we shouldn't be surprised by now, but the Bulldogs have won four in a row and still have a chance to grab a slice of the Horizon League's regular-season crown, despite losing four of seven games from Jan. 8 to Jan. 28. But they have to win out. Valpo is the No. 1 team in the conference, but the Crusaders have lost two of three.

The Mid-Major Power 15

(Conference USA, Mountain West and Atlantic 10 are not included.)

1. Wichita State: The voters in the coaches' poll finally woke up and ranked the Shockers.

2. Murray State: The Racers recorded a dominating victory over Saint Mary's on Saturday.

3. Creighton: The Bluejays outplayed a tough Long Beach State squad Saturday.

4. Long Beach State: The 49ers went to Omaha, Neb., and nearly upset the Bluejays.

5. Saint Mary's: Matthew Dellavedova's health is more concerning than a road loss versus the Racers.

6. BYU: The Cougars have won five in a row, and they're one game behind the Gaels.

7. Gonzaga: Lost control of its own WCC fate with an unexpected loss to San Francisco last week.

8. Drexel: Add the Dragons to the list of NCAA tournament sleepers after a 20-point win versus Cleveland State.

9. Harvard: The Crimson are two games ahead of Yale after Friday's victory over the Bulldogs.

10. Iona: Impressive victory over Nevada in BracketBusters.

11. Middle Tennessee State: Captured Sun Belt title with Saturday's win over Florida Atlantic.

12. George Mason: The Patriots share first place with Drexel.

13. VCU: After a loss to the Patriots on a buzzer-beater, the Rams can get revenge this weekend.

14. Oral Roberts: The Golden Eagles have lost one game since Dec. 15.

15. Belmont: The Bruins (82.3 ppg, third nationally) have won nine in a row.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN