Belmont-Georgetown Preview

Belmont coach Rick Byrd remembers his players’ wide-eyed looks,

their innocent expressions, their sense of awe.

Six years ago, the Bruins were NCAA tournament rookies.

Strangers in a strange land.

”You say all the right things, but your mentality is really is

like your first time at Disney World,” Byrd said Thursday.

”You’re looking around and you don’t know what to expect, and you

are pretty much just happy to be there.”

Those days are long gone. The Bruins now know their way around

March’s amusement park.

In Friday’s opening round of the Midwest Regional. No. 14 seed

Belmont (27-7), once an unknown small-school curiosity, will make

its fifth tournament appearance in seven years. The Bruins, who

lost their season opener by one point at Duke, will try to upset

No. 3 seed Georgetown (23-8), a first-round knockout victim the

past two years.

The Bruins haven’t slayed any giants yet in the NCAAs. But

they’ve been close.

On March 20, 2008, Belmont had its one shining moment. With a

national TV audience tuned in and office workers from coast to

coast holding their bracket sheets in terror, the Bruins led Duke

by a point before Gerald Henderson’s driving layup with 12 seconds

left bailed out the Blue Devils.

Belmont may have lost the game, but won hearts and respect.

”It did wonders for us in terms of recognition and in terms of

belonging, and that was the third straight year in the NCAA

Tournament,” said Byrd, who has been at the Nashville, Tenn.,

school for 26 seasons. ”Every high school player, every recruit

wants to play in the NCAA Tournament. We could at that point say,

well, the odds are pretty good here. We’ve gone three straight

years.”

The Bruins went 30-5 and made it again last year before losing

in the first round to Wisconsin.

According to senior guard Drew Hanlen, the Bruins began this

season with three goals: to win the Atlantic Sun Conference

regular-season title, the conference tournament and ”multiple

games in the NCAA tournament.”

”We’ve been waiting for this day since that Wisconsin loss last

year,” said the 5-foot-11 Hanlen, who made 48 percent of his

3-point tries this season.

The Hoyas have anxiously anticipated this tournament, too, for a

far different reason.

Georgetown’s past two NCAA trips have been brief.

As a No. 6 seed last season, the Hoyas were thumped 76-56 by

Virginia Commonwealth, the Rams’ first win on their shocking run to

the Final Four. It was a similar story for Georgetown in 2010, when

the third-seeded Hoyas were stunned 97-87 by No. 13 seed Ohio.

Those losses are part of an inglorious history these Hoyas don’t

want to add to.

”We all know what happened,” said senior guard Jason Clark,

one of only three upperclassmen on Georgetown’s roster. ”It’s

definitely a motivator. Everybody has it in the back of their mind.

We try not to focus on it. We know we didn’t do it in those games.

So we want to learn from our mistakes, and that’s what we’ve been

working all year for.”

Hoyas center Henry Sims believes it’s unfair for this year’s

squad to be constantly reminded of past failures.

”It’s hard for people to forget what happened until you make

something different happen,” said the 6-foot-10 Sims, whose size

could give the Bruins trouble. ”So it gets kind of repetitive when

people talk about it, but the best way for us to fix that is to win

this first game.”

To do that, the Hoyas know they’ll need to keep the Bruins, who

have won 14 straight games, from getting open looks at the basket

from outside. Belmont makes almost nine 3-pointers per game, with

Hanlen and Ian Clark the Bruins’ most accurate shooters. Junior

guard Kerron Johnson (14.1 points) is one of four starters who

average in double figures.

Hoyas coach John Thompson III has stressed to his players the

importance of guarding the arc, but the Bruins are more than

one-trick ponies.

”Obviously they have a terrific shooting team, but at the same

time, if you get spaced out, if you start just chasing those

shooters, their post players are very good and they’re a very good

passing team,” Thompson said. ”The open man always gets the

ball.

”Their transition offense is terrific. If they don’t score in

transition, they make you guard them. Protecting the 3 point line

and stopping the shooters is important, but they’re much more

complex than that.”

Thompson has also encouraged his players to focus on the here

and now. There’s nothing they can do to change what happened the

past two years, so forget it.

It’s a new tournament and a new start.

”We’ve experienced the whole gamut from a Final Four and Sweet

16 to a couple early exits,” he said. ”We’re not hiding from it.

So we’ve made that clear also that this group is 0 and 0. So let’s

go out and play.”

The Bruins intend to hang around longer than one game, but just

in case, they gathered in the center court inside Nationwide Arena

following practice to pose for a team photo.

On Friday, they want to create another lasting memory.

”Coach has talked all week about playing like you belong,”

Johnson said. ”We know we can hang with these guys.”