This is the first in a series of articles along the lines of our Below the Radar features, which will prime you for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Leading up to selection Sunday, we’ll be letting you know about some of the teams that are starting to earn automatic berths to the Big Dance. First up: the Belmont Bruins.
In a fantastic game that went down to the wire, Belmont claimed the first automatic bid of Championship Week, 2015. Rick Byrd’s squad upset a very good Murray State team 88-87 on an off-balance three pointer in the last few seconds by Taylor Barnette (which you can see in the highlights above). Murray State went undefeated in conference play and was ranked No. 25 in the AP poll heading into the game, but now find themselves on the outside looking in and in need of a little help to make the Big Dance. So who is Belmont, and are they a team to look out for in the NCAA tournament?
Since 1986, Belmont has been led by Rick Byrd, who has won over 600 games at the school and has helped guide the Bruins from an NAIA school all the way up to becoming one of the most consistent mid-majors in recent memory. Byrd has taken Belmont to the NCAA tournament in six of the past eight seasons, but has yet to get out of the first round. His closest effort was in 2008, when his 15-seed Bruins took the vaunted second seeded Duke Blue Devils down to the wire in a 71-70 loss. His teams consistently play hard and are among the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage.
Belmont has a short rotation this year with only seven players averaging over 10 minutes per game. However, this doesn’t stop the Bruins from putting up points in bunches. They have eclipsed the 80 point mark on 10 separate occasions. The Bruins are a smart bunch of players who pass well and will make you pay if you are out of position with an effective shooting percentage of 56.5%, which ranks seventh in the nation. Led by a trio of underclassmen in double-digits Belmont averages just under 74 points a game, with 6-foot-3 junior guard Craig Bradshaw leading the way with 18.1 points per game. He is one of Belmont’s six rotation players who shoots over 40% from the field. The other double digit scorers are sophomore guards Evan Bradds and Taylor Barnette with 14.3 and 10.7 points, respectively.
For as effective as Belmont is on offense, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. The Bruins give up over 70 points per game and allow opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 51.3. The lack of size on the Bruin’s roster is mostly to blame for this, with only one player in the rotation that is taller than 6-foot-7. This lack of size is abundantly clear in the lack of blocks the team has, with only 64 cumulative in 32 games. Belmont is better on the perimeter but not by much, with an average of 6.4 steals per game.
Belmont is a well coached, offensive minded team that could put a scare into a top seeded team in the tourament. Unfortunately their lack of size and depth will be their ultimate undoing, and they will be punished on the inside by a much bigger team from a power conference. They should be seeded as either a 14 or a 15, and will need to draw a team that is more perimeter oriented if they want to stand a chance. The team that would best fit that profile is Villanova, which is currently a one-seed in Joe Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology. However, they could slip with a poor showing in their conference tournament or a strong performance from a team like Arizona or Wisconsin.