March Madness Sleeper Series: How Belmont Could Shock the World

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March Madness Sleeper Series: How Belmont Could Shock the World

Belmont, the little school in Nashville, is one of the best 25 teams in the country.

The polls will not tell you that, and CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm has Belmont pegged as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But the computers disagree.

Ken Pomeroy's ratings and the RPI have had the Bruins in or around the Top 25 all season.

Let's do the math. That would mean, going by the computers, Belmont should be in line for a sixth or seventh seed.

That kind of logic prompted this from Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis:

If that's not enough to scare the fifth-seeded team that will likely draw Belmont, here are some reasons to fear the Bruins when the brackets go live.

 

Why Belmont Is Dangerous

It Has a Great Backcourt

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Belmont has been in five of the last seven NCAA tournaments, yet the Bruins are still looking for their first tourney win. (They were close in 2008, when second-seeded Duke got by with a one-point victory.)

Reason to believe this could be the year is the backcourt play of point guard Kerron Johnson and shooting guard Ian Clark, and that comes straight from the coach's mouth.

In November, Belmont coach Rick Byrd told Scott Gleeson of USA Today:

In the NCAA tournament it has so much to do with matchups, and a lot of the teams that catch lightning in a bottle are teams with real great guards. I think we have two senior guards (Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson) who could carry us to an NCAA win. We beat Stanford this year, and I don't think our team last year or the year before would have beat Stanford. But we won that matchup with our guard play.

Johnson, a lefty, is incredibly difficult to stay in front of and attempts more than half of his shots at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. He averages 13.7 points and 4.7 assists per game.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Clark, the team's leading scorer at 18.9 points per game, is the beneficiary of Johnson's slashing. He averages better than three three-pointers per contest and has made better than half of his three-point attempts. He also doesn't need a lot of shots to get his points. He has twice scored 30 points on only 14 attempts, and he needed only 15 attempts to score a season-high 32 points against Tennessee-Martin.

Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, who witnessed Clark go 10-of-10 from the field against his team in December, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he believes Johnson and Clark form one of the top 10 or 15 backcourts in the country.

Their numbers support that.

 

The Bruins Can Rain Threes

Speaking of VCU, Smart took his team to the Final Four in 2011 by playing a style similar to Belmont. The Rams could have spread the floor that season and were more than willing to take as many threes as they could, with more than 41 percent of their field-goal attempts coming from beyond the arc.

It's tough to find a team more reliant on the long ball than Belmont, and for good reason. In the 2000s, Byrd has only had one team shoot below 35 percent from beyond the arc—his 2004 team shot 34.4 percent. That kind of accuracy has made it beneficial for the Bruins to get up as many threes as they can.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

According to KenPom.com, Byrd's teams have attempted more than 40 percent of their field-goal attempts from beyond the arc in each of the last 10 seasons. In 2004, the Bruins actually took more threes than twos. This year's Bruins are shooting a bit less frequently from deep than the others, but they've still hovered around the 40 percent mark all year.

Clark and J.J. Mann, who take a majority of the threes, have attempted more shots from outside the three-point line than inside it. The Bruins also have a big man who can step out in Trevor Noack, who has shot better than 40 percent from the perimeter throughout the season. 

The obvious goal would be to run Belmont off the three-point line, but the one team that did that, Jacksonville State, did not have much success. Belmont attempted only 10 threes (making four) and still won 73–62.

 

Belmont Plays Stingy Team Defense

The Ohio Valley's representative in the NCAA tournament has advanced to the Round of 32 in each of the last three seasons. 

They had a common trait: the best defense in the league. 

In 2010, No. 13 seed Murray State knocked off Vanderbilt and nearly beat Butler in the second round, losing by two. Butler would go on to play in the national championship. Murray State held Ohio Valley opponents to 0.90 points per possession that year.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2011, No. 13 seed Morehead State upset Louisville. That team did not win the regular-season title but did have the league's best defense, holding Ohio Valley opponents to 0.94 points per possession.

Last season, the mid-major flavor of March was Murray State. The Racers, who lost only one regular-season game, were able to make the Round of 32. Once again, they had the league's best defense, holding opponents to 0.94 points per possession.

Belmont joined Murray State this season in the Ohio Valley and has carried over its success from the Atlantic Sun, where Belmont lost only three games in the last two seasons.

Where the Bruins have improved this year compared to last season is on the defensive end. The difference has been an ability to turn opponents over. Belmont forces a turnover one out of every four possessions. The Bruins' defensive efficiency numbers also mirror the last three Ohio Valley tournament teams.

Only Belmont is more dominant.

To quantify the Bruins' success, let's compare them to Murray State last year.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Racers dominated the league by outscoring Ohio Valley opponents by 0.20 points per possession. To put it another way, the Racers were two points better than their competition every 10 possessions.

Through 10 conference games, Belmont made a mockery of the Ohio Valley, outscoring league opponents by 0.26 points per possession. The Bruins won eight of their first 10 games by double digits, including a 107-72 win against SE Missouri State.

"This is the first game that we didn't have a chance," SEMO coach Dickey Nutt told The Tennessean. "We were in every game, even at Missouri and at Kansas. But Belmont hit us in the nose and didn't let up."

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SEMO had 20 giveaways in that game, and that can be attributed to the pressure that Johnson, Mann and Clark apply. The trio combined for six steals against SEMO, and one of the three comes away with a steal nearly 10 percent of the time they're on the court together. 

That kind of pressure masks the Bruins' small front line and will make them a pain to play in the tourney.

 

Teams Belmont Could Beat in NCAA Tournament

Arizona

 The Wildcats have struggled defending the three-point line all season. Oregon made seven of 11 threes in its upset of Arizona, and Colorado, which would have upset Arizona if not for a mistake by the officials, made 10 of 21 threes.

 

Notre Dame

 The Irish have been a fringe Top 25 team all season and could end up somewhere around a No. 5 seed, which means a possible date with Belmont. The computers would actually favor Belmont in that matchup.

 

All advanced statistics used in this piece, unless otherwise noted, come from KenPom.com.

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