SALT LAKE CITY — Former Arizona guard Steve Kerr used the 3-point line as the demarcation point for history, and his NCAA season and NBA career records for long-range success still stand. Belmont coach Rick Byrd is every bit the advocate, and it is no stretch to believe the Wildcats’ fate today could be decided 20-feet, nine-inches from the goal.
Duke and Belmont rank 1-2 in NCAA Division 1 in 3-pointers made since 1996-97, and if one of those two schools has escaped the national radar, it has not gone unnoticed this week.
Inasmuch as No. 21 Arizona (25-7) was last in the Pac-12 in defending the 3-point shot in the regular season, the storyline for its first-round NCAA West regional game against Ohio Valley champion Belmont (26-6) at the Energy Solutions Arena seems self-evident.
“We’ve gotten better at guarding the 3-point shot. But I think we need to be great (Thursday) or else we will lose,” Arizona senior Kevin Parrom said. “If we don’t take that away, it is going to be tough to contain them.”
Belmont has made 271 3-pointers this season, 8.5 per game, with shooting guard Ian Clark and small forward J.J. Mann doing most of the work. The 6-foot-4 Clark has NBA range, UA players said after watching film this week, and compared him to Pac-12 perimeter players Jordan Adams, C.J. Wilcox and Spencer Dinwiddie.
At the same time, it is too simplistic to look at Belmont as a one-trick pony, Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
“The one thing you have to caution against is, when you put so much emphasis on just one area, you almost put them in a category that that’s all they can do … if you take that 3‑point shooting away, you’re going to be successful,” Miller said.
“That’s the furthest thing from the truth in watching them. Their free‑throw attempts from the point guard position alone and their ability to score inside three — as a matter of fact, the percentage of shots they make inside the arc is one of the nation’s best. That’s what scary about them. I would say they’re a great offensive team, period. It’s important that our 3‑point defense is in place, but we’re going to need a great defensive performance, period.”
Opponents shot 36.0 percent from 3-point range against the Wildcats in the regular season, although they tightened up a bit in the Pac-12 tournament, giving up 6 of 24 from 3-point range. UCLA was 1 for 12 — the one three from Adams coming on the possession before Miller’s technical foul with 4:37 remaining.
Despite losing three of their last five, Wildcats players say they enter with confidence borne from a reemphasis on the defensive end in practice after being swept in Los Angeles on the final Pac-12 road trip of the season.
“I think we are starting get back to the team that was 14-0 on the defensive side of the ball,” guard Nick Johnson said.
“Honestly, I think it took a few losses. It was tough. We were one loss away from the Pac-12 championship. We are focused. I’m happy we got it back. Everybody is locked in. Everybody is playing hard. We’re conscious of our defensive effort. We know what is going to help us advance in this tournament for the most part is our defense. We’re definitely ready for the challenge.”
Added guard Mark Lyons: “Our defensive intensity ratcheted back up to where it was in the beginning of the year. Harder practices, and guys willing to take the challenge. We’re not changing nothing. We’re not trying to save our legs. We are going hard.”
Lyons, who leads the team with a 14.8 scoring average, is playing his fourth straight NCAA tournament after playing on three Sweet Sixteen teams with Xavier. He has a simple approach to this time of the season.
“You have to take every game serious, but you can’t make them bigger than they are, because that’s when people don’t want to shoot their shot because they are nervous and try to make plays because they don’t want to mess up,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, you have to play to win.”
Johnson has kept Arizona State’s Jonathan Gilling, Colorado’s Dinwiddie and UCLA’s Larry Drew from causing any trouble from distance in the last three games, but in Clark and 6-6 Mann, Belmont has the most prolific twosome the Wildcats have faced. Clark is 99 for 214 (46.3 percent) and Mann has made 61 of 159 (38.4).
Belmont likes to shoot threes after penetration from point guard Kerron Johnson, who draws defenders and dishes outside. Johnson likely will be assigned to Clark, and Solomon Hill to Mann.
“Just try to limit his touches and make him work for his points,” Johnson said. “He’s a dead-eye shooter. Deep range. He’s a scorer. He can get his shot by himself, or he can come off a screen.
“The last few years, we have been No. 1 or No. 2 in the country in 3-point percentage (defense). We’re trying to get that back a little bit, even if it is at the end of the season. We have a different team this year. We have a lot of size, whereas other years we had more athletic ability.”
Belmont’s Byrd has been at his job since the rule-change that brought in the 3-point line. He did not like the change but learned to embrace it.
“I’m not much at mathematics. But I do know that you only have to make one out of every three from beyond that arc to equal one of two inside of it,” he said.
“I thought the most under-recruited guy was a guy that could shoot it and maybe didn’t reach the athletic line that a lot of coaches in Division I want as a player. We continued to recruit along those lines because we were having success, and now we have a team of much better athletes. But we’ve never lost the sort of primary skill that you need to be able to make shots if you’re going to play that style of offense.”
The Arizona-Belmont winner will play the winner of the New Mexico-Harvard game on Saturday. No. 10 New Mexico (29-5) is the third seed in the West region. If the Wildcats win two games here, they will advance to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in the Staples Center in Los Angeles.