Entering the NCAA tournament on a six-game winning streak and featuring a high-major backcourt, the Belmont Bruins approached their game versus 6-seed Arizona with plenty of confidence.
It all fell apart pretty quickly from there.
The talented Wildcats exploded out of the gate and held a steady lead throughout, shooting 56.9 percent from the floor and controlling the boards (42-15 advantage). If this is the Arizona team the West Region is plagued with, then the likes of top-seeded Gonzaga, a team that struggled against a 16-seed Thursday, could be in for a dogfight over the next few weeks.
But Belmont, one of the mid-major upset favorites on brackets across the country, has to feel like it didn’t put forth its best effort in the second-round loss. The Bruins have now been bounced from the Round of 64 in their past five tourney appearances. Here are a few observations from the game:
1. Belmont’s backcourt should be paired with a high-major front court at, you know, a bigger school.
Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark proved they are more than capable of putting up big numbers when the pressure is on, combining for 43 of their team’s 64 points. Although some of those points came in relative garbage time as the Bruins tried to claw their way back into the ballgame, it was clear that the duo provided coach Rick Byrd’s only real option against the superior Wildcats.
Johnson, in particular, seemed determined to will the team back into the game in the second half, getting to the free-throw line and spurring an unexpected 10-0 run to make the score respectable. He finished 6 of 12 from the field (8-for-10 from the line) but it wasn’t enough.
If you paired those two with, say, Gonzaga’s frontcourt, the Bruins would be in business.
Still, it’s always great to see seniors go down swinging.
2. Arizona has the captivating ability to look equally explosive and dumbfounded … all within the span of a couple minutes.
While coach Sean Miller had his team clicking on a higher level than Belmont could approach for a good portion of his team’s opener, there were still concerning moments. On Thursday, Arizona looked like a team susceptible to allowing opponents to go on runs — much like the 10-0 run Belmont went on in the second half, including two 3-pointers in five seconds after a botched inbounds play.
The Wildcats eventually lost the turnover battle 15-7, which normally prevents 17-point wins. At some point in the West region, they will not shoot 57 percent and own the offensive boards, and that’s when these occasional lapses of attention will need to be minimized.
It’s been written many times: the West is wide open. Arizona, mental mistakes or not, looked like a Final Four contender against Belmont.
3. What’s next for Belmont?
The Bruins have lost just five conference games (Atlantic Sun/Ohio Valley) over the past three years, but losing the likes of Clark and Johnson will hurt — players of that caliber are not guaranteed to slip through the cracks every few years.
Byrd, who has led the program since 1986 during its transition from NAIA to Division I, has been as close to a tournament lock as there is at the mid-major level over the past few seasons, but that’s not guaranteed without the type of backcourt talent the Bruins have been blessed with in recent years.
The last time Belmont missed the NCAAs was the 2009-10 season. Clark and Johnson were just freshmen guards on that team. That streak could be put in jeopardy next season.