Belmont Plays Bigger than its Name

Belmont may be a small mid-major school from Tennessee, but what the Bruins lack in enrollment and notoriety, they make up for with winning basketball. Not only has Wisconsin's second round opponent in the NCAA Tournament won 30 games this season, they've done it using components that

MADISON – Mere minutes after Wisconsin was named as a No.4 seed in the NCAA Tournament's southeast region, the talking heads on CBS Sports Selection show said the Badgers' opponent – No.13 seed Belmont – was going to spring the upset.

It was a bold statement, considering No.4 seeds are 82-22 (.788) since the tournament expanded in 1985, winning by an average of 9.2 points per game. However, the statement is geared toward more of what Belmont has done and not that Wisconsin is 5-5 in the tournament the past five years and has been ousted by lesser seeds three times in four years.

Winning the regular-season and tournament titles in the Atlantic Sun Conference, Belmont (30-4, 19-1), who will face Wisconsin (23-8) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional game Thursday night in Tucson, Ariz., set a conference record for wins, averaging 80.4 points (11th in the nation) and 9.4 3-pointers a game (second in the country).

The 3-pointing shooting and the turnover battle will undoubtedly play a factor. Belmont shoots 38.1 percent from 3-point range and has shot 31 percent or worse in its four losses. In the Badgers last five NCAA losses, Wisconsin's opponents shot 49.4 percent from 3-point range while the Badgers shot 30.9 percent.

Belmont's success this season has come from using its fast-paced style to force 19.2 turnovers a game. If the season ended today, Wisconsin would set a new NCAA record for just 7.39 turnovers per game, shattering the '06 Temple Owls mark of 7.72 a contest.

"My guess is that they are going to win (the turnover) battle," said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who is 518-277 in his 25th year led Belmont to consecutive berths in the NAIA Final Four in 1995 and 1996 before the program elevated to NCAA Division I status the following year.

"We're not going to force 20 turnovers from Wisconsin. They are too sound. The other part is that they shoot the free throws so well, one of the best in the history of the NCAA. We have to be careful to not so aggressive that they are in the 1-and-1. That's giving them two points per possession."

The Bruins only beat one team (East Tennessee State) with an RPI better than 100, but the Bruins' fast-pace style forces 19.2 turnovers a game. The Bruins lost at Tennessee twice (missing a 3-pointer to tie with 30 seconds left before losing by 9 in the season opener and by 1 after leading with 4 seconds left on Dec.23) and had a seven-point lead before falling at Vanderbilt. Both teams are in the NCAA Tournament.

Belmont has never won in three trips to the NCAA Tournament, but nearly upset Duke in the first round on their last NCAA trip in 2008 as a 15th seed, losing 71-70.

"This group is here because of the teams that played '06 through '08 and had a chance to beat Duke," Byrd said. "These kids have been in the tournament. We feel like we've been able to recruit better players as we've gone through this process, but this team is different and different than any that I have coached.

"We play 11 games at least 10 minutes. The whole idea is that we can have five guys on the floor that aren't fatigued and can play as hard as they can play. That leads to things other than just physical play, its better focus and all those kinds of things."

The Bruins, who have won 12 in a row, are led by sophomore guard Ian Clark and junior forward Mick Hedgepeth. Clark is an all-conference and all-tournament selection who averages 12.4 points, shoots 49 percent from the floor and 46.3 percent from 3-point range while Hedgepath was the Atlantic Sun tourney MVP who along with his 10.6 points per game leads the team with six rebounds per contest.

"They've done a heck of a job," said UW Coach Bo Ryan of Belmont. "They just compete. Not a whole lot of Division 1 schools from the major conferences probably are calling Belmont over the years to play, simply because they are solid. Their post players are definitely skilled, their perimeter shooters are making 9 to 10 3s a game (and) they can hurt you from there. Anytime (they) have both heads working for them on their offensive end, they'll be a tough team to get out."

The Badgers have won eight of their last 10 regular-season games, seven of those games against NCAA Tournament teams. The two losses were at Ohio State and Purdue.

Belmont is a small school located in Nashville with an enrollment of 5,936 students and a smart group, having had a team grade-point average of at least 3.0 for 11 straight years. Not quite the Buckeyes and Boilermakers, but another dangerous team in the path of Wisconsin.


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