Into the spotlight: Belmont star Ian Clark making a name for himself (Sporting News)
No. 11 seed Belmont, located in Nashville, Tenn., opens the NCAA tournament Thursday against No. 6 Arizona at Salt Lake City.
The Bruins (26-6) will represent the Ohio Valley Conference in their first year in the league. Belmont joins Kansas and Memphis as one of only three NCAA Division I programs to earn NCAA Tournament automatic bids six of the last eight years. Moreover, only Belmont, Gonzaga, Marquette and Xavier of NCAA Division I non-football playing schools have reached the NCAA Tournament at least six of the last eight years.
This marks Belmont’s third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, for a heralded group of five Bruin seniors that have won 102 games, four conference regular season championships and three conference tournament championships.
Though Belmont has never faced Arizona, the Bruins did play at the UA’s home court, McKale Center, in the 2011 NCAA Tournament against Wisconsin.
Belmont is 1-4 lifetime against the Pac-12, which includes a 70-62 victory at Stanford earlier this season.
BELMONT BRUINS (26-6)
BEST VICTORIES (according to CBSSports.com)
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THREE BIGGEST CHALLENGES BELMONT PRESENTS ARIZONA
- Ian Clark, a 6-3 senior shooting guard from Memphis, is shooting 46.3 percent from three-point range (99 of 214), which leads the nation. Arizona defensive ace Nick Johnson will likely match up against Clark, which means Mark Lyons will play the natural defensive assignment against point guard Kerron Johnson, who has 155 assists and 102 turnovers. Lyons must assure UA coach Sean Miller he will not be a defensive liability on the ball.
- Belmont can score and take advantage of turnovers and defensive lapses in transition. The Wildcats have been victimized by turnovers and defensive lapses most of the season. At a time when scoring is down, the Bruins average 77.2 points a game. They have 12 games with at least 80 points this season. They shoot 49.4 percent from the field, which ranks No. 5 in the nation. Two starters — Clark (54.1 percent) and 6-7 forward Blake Jenkins (59.9) — shoot better than 50 percent from the field. Belmont ranks No. 21 in three-point shooting percentage (38.6).
- Relevant to Belmont’s high shooting percentages and scoring marks is the Bruins’ ability to make steals and produce off turnovers. Belmont ranks No. 6 nationally in steals with 9.8 per game. The Bruins are No. 11 in turnover margin (plus-3.9). Three players have at least 50 steals, led by 6-6 junior guard J.J. Mann with 61. Opponents average 17.4 turnovers a game. The Wildcats must show efficiency taking care of the ball and avoid ill-advised passes that they are prone to make. Lyons, Arizona’s primary ball handler, has almost as many turnovers (88) as assists (95)
WHAT THE WILDCATS CAN EXPLOIT
- Belmont did not play nearly as well on the road as it did at home. The Bruins were 13-0 at home and 13-6 on the road or on neutral courts. The game will be played at the home of the Utah Jazz – EnergySolutions Arena – in Salt Lake City. The Wildcats will have more fans in attendance. Arizona thrived with a partisan Arizona crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena this week.
- The Bruins lack size and their top rebounder is 6-7 senior forward Trevor Noack, who averages only 5.5 rebounds a game. Arizona and Belmont each beat Stanford in their only meeting with the Cardinal this season. The Bruins won at Stanford 70-62 despite getting outrebounded 48-39. The Wildcats beat Stanford at McKale Center 73-66 and the Wildcats held a 37-33 advantage on the glass. Arizona should not only make it a goal to beat Belmont on the boards but have a double-digit advantage.
- Arizona can go eight deep, especially if reserve guard Jordin Mayes is involved, while Belmont relies heavily on its starters. The Bruins’ bench played only 27.9 percent of Belmont’s minutes this season. Arizona’s bench accounted for 30.4 percent of the Wildcats’ total minutes. A significant key to Belmont’s success is its lack of foul trouble. The Bruins have only four foul-outs all season. Arizona has 13. If the Wildcats can draw fouls against Belmont with their athleticism and physicality around the basket, Arizona can gradually pull away.
Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner