NCAA Tourney: Belmont Preview

UCLA's first-round opponent, #15-seeded Belmont, didn't get to the Big Dance for nothing, toting some weapons in a couple of high-scoring guards and a 6-11 load under the basket. But then again, the Belmont Bruins haven't seen much like the UCLA Bruins this season...

College basketball's second season has arrived and UCLA is primed to be a very big part of it. The Bruins, after a very successful regular season that included a 27-6 record as well as a PAC-10 regular season and tournament championship, have been seeded #2 in the Oakland Region for the NCAA tournament. They will face the #15 seeded Belmont Bruins out of the Atlantic Sun Conference on Thursday in the first round of the tournament.

Belmont's record entering the Big Dance is 20-10. It is their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament after only six full years of playing Division I basketball. UCLA is making their second straight appearance in the field of 65, and it's 40th appearance in its history, and is heavily favored to win the game. How will UCLA play knowing that they are an overwhelming favorite and knowing that a tough second round match-up awaits if they get past Belmont?

Belmont has been coached for the past 20 years by Rick Byrd, who has a fantastic record of 401-228. But not many of those wins have come at the Division I level. Belmont, which is mostly known for its excellent music department (the school is in Nashville), only posted its first winning record in Division I last season. Byrd has established a program that does well at its low-major level, and the players on the Belmont team will be well-schooled in Byrd's offensive and defensive philosophies.

On offense, Belmont runs a 4out, 1 in set, with the idea that the four outside players screen for each other to set up 3 point shots for each other. Belmont has averaged 8.6 three-pointers made per game this season, one of the best averages in Division I. The offense is predicated on having a low-post player who is skilled enough to score when the ball comes to him, but is strong enough to handle the inevitable double-teams that come his way and be a good enough passer to find the open shooter out of those double-teams. Whenever possible, Belmont looks to get the ball up the floor in a hurry and will take a three-pointer on a clear 3-on-2 break as often as they will try to get to the basket. In short, the offense works as Belmont has averaged 82 PPG this season.

The problem is that as good as Belmont's offense is their defense is conversely just as bad. Belmont allows and average of 75.9 PPG. Their major weakness, as it is at most low-major Division I schools, is that they seriously lack athleticism and quickness. When they played Ohio State earlier this season, in December, Belmont played perhaps its best game of the year. They were 10-18 from behind the arc and shot close to 50% for the game. Ohio State played one of their worst games of the year, but the Buckeyes won by 10. The reason is that Ohio State's guards and wings were able to penetrate at will against Belmont. Belmont's only other game against a "name" school was an 81-59 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma, and the game wasn't that close. Belmont will throw some zone defense at UCLA and Byrd has been known to come up with some "gimmick" defenses, like a box-and-1 or a diamond-and-1. But because of Belmont's general lack of size (length), this has not been a very successful defense for them.

Belmont's success this season can be directly traced to senior post Boomer Herndon (6'11" 260 lbs.), who averages 14.9 PPG and leads Belmont with 7.5 RPG. His scoring average is impressive because he really doesn't take that many shots. His field goal percentage is at 59%, and he is the prototypical back-to-the-basket post. He is a load on the low block and has an array of low-post moves that work. He probably has a better arsenal of moves than anyone on the current UCLA roster. However, he does have an offensive Achilles Heel: Herndon only shoots 59% from the free-throw line. If he shot even 5% better, he would clearly be the leading scorer for Belmont. As much as his girth helps him on the offensive end, it clearly limits him on the defensive end. Herndon tires easily, which has much to do with his averaging only 23 MPG. He can get into foul trouble because his lack of quickness means that he arrives late when giving help. Herndon also plays like he's a shot-blocker, but he's not, and that gets him into foul trouble, too. Herndon's tires easily, and Byrd has to rest him at regular intervals or else Herndon loses his effectiveness on the offensive end. But Herndon is a threat and has skill. He originally played at Tennessee.

At the other forward spot (Belmont starts three guards) is senior Dan Oliver (6'6" 215 lbs.). Oliver only plays about half the game (18 MPG), but he knows his role is to be the "garbage man," finding rebounds, playing good post defense and cleaning up missed shots. His field goal percentage isn't bad at 46%, but his foul shooting is horrid at 33%. Admittedly, he doesn't go to the line all that much. He is basically the designated screener in this offense. Oliver is strong and will work very hard down low, especially on defense.

When Oliver is out, the other "forward" position will be taken by either freshman Matthew Dotson (6'8" 215 lbs.) or freshman Andy Wicke, (6'3" 185 lbs.). Dotson, who originally signed with Tennessee, is a nice role player who gives Belmont some skill and size to complement Herndon. He averages 5.3 PPG and 2.8 RPG all in about 15 minutes of play. Dotson will shoot the three, and has made 32% of his shots from behind the arc this season. Wicke, who will also substitute for the guards, is a shooter. He averages 25 MPG, 8.6 PPG and shoots 40% from behind the arc. He is the offensive spark plug off the bench.

Finally, up front, Byrd will try to glean some minutes from junior Andrew Preston (6'10" 210 lbs). Preston provides Belmont with a few minutes of length to rest Herndon, but he is very, very thin. Think Washington State's Robbie Cowgill without Cowgill's skill. Preston won't play much, but he will play.

In the backcourt, Belmont will start three guards, sophomore Justin Hare (6'3" 185 lbs.) and seniors Brian Collins (6'4" 175 lbs.) and Josh Goodwin, (6'2" 200 lbs.). Of this group, Hare is the one to watch. He is the team's leading scorer at 15.9 PPG and is the one true inside/outside threat. He will shoot the 3, which he's good at (39%), but he is just as apt to drive to the hoop. He averages 79% from the charity stripe, so he knows he will get his points one way or another. Collins is the point guard and he likes to penetrate. He will shoot from about 12 feet in but is more apt to look to dish once he gets inside. His outside shooting is abysmal (15% from beyond the arc), so he isn't a real threat from outside the foul line. Collins does shoot 70% when he makes it to the foul line. Goodwin is the real gunner on the Belmont squad, having made 81 threes on the season. His 3-point shooting percentage, 46%, is by far the best on the team, and most of the screens set in Belmont's half-court offense will be set for Goodwin. He is also by far Belmont's leading free throw shooter at 83%.

As a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, Belmont hasn't seen anything like the quickness, athleticism and strength that they will see when they face UCLA on Thursday. As has now become the norm, UCLA's fortunes will start with their defensive effort. Ryan Hollins will be matched up with Herndon, and the Belmont big man has only seen one player with the type of athleticism that Hollins has, Ohio State's Terrence Dials. Dials had a horrible game against Belmont, scoring only 3 points and going 0-7 from the field. But Dials is usually the focus of the Buckeye offense, which explains why the game was so close. Hollins isn't the focus of the UCLA offense, but his quickness and length, especially at the defensive end, is sure to bother Herndon. Hollins has become a shot blocker, the type of which Herndon hasn't seen yet this season. If Hollins can't do the job, then Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata or Ryan Wright will be able to come off the bench ready to play, beat up Herndon and tire him out. That's four relatively skilled bodies that UCLA can throw at Herndon, and he certainly hasn't seen that this season.

In the backcourt and on the wing, UCLA will enjoy a sizeable advantage in quickness and length, not to mention strength. Arron Afflalo will probably be matched-up with Goodwin and the Belmont guard will be introduced to one of the best man-on-man defenders in the country. Cedric Bozeman will probably have the responsibility of guarding Hare. Hare may be the Atlantic Sun Tourney MVP, but he wasn't playing against anyone even close to the level of Bozeman, certainly defensively. Jordan Farmar will have the task of guarding Collins because Farmar can play so far off him as to simply prevent Collins from getting into the lane. Collins will surely be matched-up defensively on Farmar and this is the only thing that gives me any pause. Collins is a long 6'5" and he may be able to do what Brandon Roy of Washington did in Seattle, making it difficult for Farmar to see over him. But Farmar is much quicker than Collins and should be able to drive the lane. If he can't, then Darren Collison almost certainly will be able to get into the paint. The quickness that Collison brings to the game will be something that is light years removed from anything Belmont has seen this year. Finally, with Belmont's penchant for poor defense, expect Mike Roll to have a good offensive game. Belmont isn't good at defending the 3-point line, so expect Roll, as well as Afflalo, Farmar and Bozeman, to have a lot of open looks from behind the arc.

UCLA will really be the team that dictates this game. If UCLA shows up looking ahead to Saturday, then this game will be closer than it should be. But even an unfocused UCLA team should be able to win by double digits. Expect UCLA to start out a bit tight with turnovers and missed shots they normally make. As good as UCLA is, they are still young and will probably be a bit over-pumped for this first tourney game, almost as if they will be trying to win it in the first 5 minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if Belmont was close or even in the lead at the 10-minute mark of the first half. But UCLA will settle down and expect them to have a decent lead at the half. In the second half, as UCLA's tremendous defense begins to tell, and as some of the Belmont players tire (Herndon in particular), then UCLA will really pull away. In fact, Belmont only has two players, Hare and Goodwin, who are used to playing a lot of minutes (more than 30 per game), but Belmont will have to have players like Herndon play a lot more than their averages if they expect to make a game of this. Belmont hasn't faced the kind of defensive pressure and toughness they will see on Thursday. And Belmont already is averaging close to 16 turnovers per game. The Bruins will win this game (and you all know which Bruins I mean), and they will do so relatively easily in the end. Expect Farmar, Afflalo and the rest of the starters to get some rest for Saturday.

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