Published March 16, 2011
TUCSON, Ariz. – A 13 seed has beaten a fourth seed in each of the last two NCAA tournaments.
Belmont could make it three in a row.
The little Nashville Christian school brings a deep, sharpshooting team to its Thursday night matchup with fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the Southeast Regional.
In his 25th season at Belmont, coach Rick Byrd directed the Bruins (30-4) to their fourth Atlantic Sun championship in six years. Belmont's losses have been at Tennessee twice, at Vanderbilt and, in its lone conference loss, at archrival Lipscomb.
Wisconsin (23-8) is an NCAA tournament regular, making its 13th consecutive appearance, the last 10 under coach Bo Ryan.
The Badgers are ranked 16th nationally but they have lost two in a row, 93-65 at No. 1 Ohio State in their last regular season game, then 36-33 to Penn State in the lowest-scoring Big Ten tournament game ever.
No one has to convince Ryan of his opponent's qualities.
"We know they're very good," he said, "and I've been around long enough to know how good some teams are in spite of what the public or other people, what they might understand about teams or names or anything else. So, being a grizzled veteran, I'm well aware of Belmont."
Belmont has won 18 of 19 and 12 in a row, but has been idle since March 5, when the Bruins routed North Florida 87-46 for the conference tournament championship.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said in an interview on SiriusXM's MadDog Radio that Belmont is his pick for a surprise team that could win a couple of NCAA tournament games, even "maybe get on a little roll like Butler did last year."
To which the Bruins say thanks for all the attention about being a potential upset winner, but it doesn't really mean anything.
"I think to be a really good analyst they've got to pick some upsets," Byrd said, "and it's nice that we were chosen. But the committee met and thought long and hard and they made Wisconsin a fourth seed and us a 13 seed for a reason. So we're playing a really good team, a really good Big Ten team. We're, I think, a really good Atlantic Sun team."
Not that the recent tournament success of lower seeds is lost on the Bruins.
"I think it just speaks to the parity in college basketball lately," Belmont's Scott Saunders said. "I mean, looking a team like Butler making a run to the national title game last year, and they're in a situation that's not unlike ours."
The Badgers are well aware of all the Belmont talk.
"People can say what they want," star guard Jordan Taylor said, "and they're going to make their picks. But all that really matters is what happens between the lines in the next 40 minutes."
Wisconsin wants to control the tempo and rely on the talents of Taylor, who averages 18.1 points per game, 20.1 in Big Ten play, and leads the country with a 4.20 assist to turnover ratio.
Belmont will come at the Badgers in waves, with Byrd routinely going 10 deep in his rotation. No team in NCAA Division I had better bench scoring.
"It's been very beneficial as far as practicing harder, which no one really thinks about," Belmont's Mike Hedgepeth said. "Usually we've been able to practice a lot harder this year. I think that's helped us out. Hopefully it will prepare us for this tournament."
With their depth, the Bruins don't pace themselves.
"It's good to know you can come in and play as hard as you can for three or four minutes instead of having to pace yourself like a lot of guys do on most teams," Hedgepeth said. "So we stay fresh. I think we average, like, 10 guys play over 10 minutes but no one plays over 25 minutes."
Several are long-range specialists, led by Ian Clark, who made 72 of 165 3-pointers (44 percent). Jordan Campbell came off the bench to make 74 of 161 3s (46 percent). Overall, Belmont shot 38 percent on 3 pointers, going 321 for 842. Wisconsin can make 3s, although though they attempt far fewer. The Badgers made 37 percent (250 of 673), led by Taylor's 65 of 150 (43 percent) and Jon Leuer's 51 of 135 (38 percent).
Wisconsin's players brushed aside the 36-33 Big Ten tournament loss to Penn State last weekend, saying they have put it behind them.
Ryan chose to note the positives.
"What we did defensively against them (Penn State) I was very, very proud of the team," Ryan said. "And just cut to the chase — we just didn't make baskets."
Belmont was no higher than a 15 seed in its previous three tournament trips and lost each time. The last one, though, was a thriller — 71-70 in 2008 to No. 2 seed Duke.