SALT LAKE CITY – Some might say it’s a heavy dose of mountain air that’s allowed the Belmont men’s basketball team to feel at ease a day before its first game of the NCAA tournament.
Others might say it’s experience that has allowed Belmont (26-6) to feel prepared as the team boasts five seniors who have now reached the NCAA tournament three straight years.
This time, the 11th seeded Bruins face No. 6 Arizona Wildcats (25-7), one of 11 teams to have been ranked in every AP poll this season.
“I think there are so many intangibles, immeasurable-type things that I would suspect it helps,” said coach Rick Byrd. “Does it help that we’ve got guys playing their third year in the NCAA tournament? I think it probably does, but I have now idea how you put a point value on those kinds of things.”
While the team is at ease, it remains focused to earning its first NCAA postseason victory.
“It’s going to be a battle,” said senior forward Trevor Noack. “If they get position on you, there’s not much you can do. As far as the offense goes, we try to spread the floor and that’s one thing we do really well.”
This will mark the first meeting between the Bruins and Wildcats, but Belmont has already earned a quality win over another Pacific-12 team in a 70-62 win over Stanford last November.
“Stanford had two really good guards and Arizona has Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson – two good guards in the Pac-12–and they’re athletic,” said senior guard Ian Clark.
The Wildcats boast nine players 6-foot-6-inches or taller, presenting a challenge of size to the Bruins.
“They’re big. We’ve never been the biggest team on the court, so we’ve learned how to get over that obstacle and we’ll be able to do that tomorrow,” said senior guard Kerron Johnson.
Byrd says that the team will have a mixed approach to combat the lack of size in the post as they have in games past.
“You can front more, which requires good after-side help. You can let ‘em throw it in there and dig on the post and make a guy wonder whether you’re going to double him. You can double him immediately,” Byrd said.
The Bruins will also continue to rely on Johnson and Clark, a backcourt duo Arizona coach Sean Miller admires.
“Part of what makes Clark so good is they have an excellent point guard in Johnson and when you look at his free throw attempts, how he runs the show, the big plays he makes, including the game-winning shot here in the conference tournament, they have a dynamic backcourt,” he said.
Tip-off is slated for 6:20 CST and will be televised on TNT.