One of only three NCAA Division I programs to earn automatic bids to six of the last eight NCAA Tournaments, the Belmont Bruins set their sights on the Arizona Wildcats in the second round of the West Regional at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday evening.
Along with Kansas and Memphis, the only other schools to earn automatic bids on a regular basis lately, the 11th-seeded Bruins have done so this year even after changing leagues. A perennial favorite in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament where it won the previous two years and a total of five times dating back to 2006, Belmont took the Ohio Valley Conference by storm this year with a 14-2 mark, easily claiming the regular-season title.
Because the Bruins dominated in the OVC, losing only to Tennessee State and Murray State, the squad earned a bye through to the semifinals of the conference tournament where it defeated the aforementioned Tigers (82-74) on March 8. A day later, Belmont was pushed to overtime before taking out the Racers in a grudge match, 70-68.
With respect to being in this tournament over the years, Belmont has still failed to crack the win column with a mark of 0-5.
As for the sixth-seeded Wildcats, a squad that has an official record of 46-26 in 29 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, as well as a 1997 title under former head coach Lute Olson, they are currently ranked 21st in the AP poll after being one of the elite teams in the Pac-12 Conference for much of 2012-13. Arizona tied Oregon and California for a second-place finish in the Pac-12, good enough to earn the Wildcats a bye through to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament where they ended up beating Colorado (79-69) before bowing to UCLA (66-64) in the semifinals last week.
The winner of this first-ever meeting will be back in action on Saturday versus the survivor of the Harvard/New Mexico matchup in the third round for the right to move on to the Sweet 16.
Much of the success for the Bruins this season can be attributed to the efforts of Ian Clark, who was recognized as the OVC Co-Player of the Year, the OVC Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the All-OVC First Team as he lit up the scoreboard for a team-best 18.1 ppg on the strength of not only 54.1 percent shooting from the floor overall, but also a fantastic 46.3 percent beyond the arc. A candidate for the Naismith and Lou Henson National Player of the Year Awards, Clark scored in double figures in all but three of the team's 30 regular-season bouts. Also making a name for himself was Kerron Johnson who claimed a spot on the All-OVC First Team along with Clark, thanks to 13.7 ppg and a team-leading 155 assists, not to mention 56 steals which was second on the Bruins. Add in Trevor Noack and JJ Mann who posted 12.5 and 10.5 ppg, respectively, as well as combining for more than 10 rpg, and it is easy to see why Belmont was so dominant again this season.
One of the reasons why Arizona was so successful this year was because the starting lineup remained intact for a good portion of the campaign, particularly as four players started all 32 games for the group. One of the quartet, Mark Lyons, led the team in scoring with 14.8 ppg as he converted a team-best 59 3-pointers, although he did need 182 attempts to make it happen. Lyons also placed second on the squad with 95 assists, trailing only Nick Johnson (102) who turned out to be one of the top all-around performers in the Pac-12 with his 11.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 61 steals. Solomon Hill is perhaps the one player who can be the most dominant for Arizona since he can seemingly do it all for the group, from scoring (13.4 ppg) and rebounding (5.3 rpg), to distributing the ball (90 assists) and making an impact on defense (40 steals, 18 blocks), but still the program is far deeper than those three headliners.