Belmont thinks 5th trip charm for 1st NCAA win
By TERESA M. WALKER
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Belmont Bruins are tired of waiting and feel ready for the challenge of winning the program's first NCAA tournament game in their fifth trip overall.
Belmont will play No. 3 seed Georgetown on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. This is Belmont's fifth NCAA tournament berth in seven years, something only Memphis and Kansas can claim with their other trips in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011.
These Bruins (27-7) go in having won 14 straight coming out of the Atlantic Sun Conference - tied for the nation's longest winning streak with Montana. Center Mick Hedgepeth said he's been talking with fellow seniors Drew Hanlen and Scott Saunders about how successful they've been in conference play and making the NCAA tournament.
"We said the only thing left to do is go win some games, so yeah, we definitely have that sense," Hedgepeth said.
He's not alone. Anticipation has grown with each trip, including a 71-70 loss to No. 2 Duke in 2008.
Junior guard Ian Clark said he thinks the program is really ready with this the fifth trip even with everyone so excited that the Bruins won their conference tournament and the bracket announcement.
"But there comes a time where I think we need to buckle down and win some games," Clark said. "I think this is one of the years our coaching staff and the players really think we can win."
Rick Byrd, the eighth-winningest active Division I coach with 637 career victories, has most of his roster back from the team that lost a first-round game 72-58 to Wisconsin a year ago. He said that should make his Bruins more comfortable.
"I think we're closer to thinking it's realistic," Byrd said. "I think we all know they're a 3 seed, which means the committee thinks they're one of the top 12 in the country. None of them thought we were among the top 12 teams, so it's a task for sure. But this is certainly a good team in this room right here, and I think they'll take the floor expecting to win."
The trip to Columbus, Ohio, certainly will be easy for Belmont fans, which includes country singer and Byrd's close friend Vince Gill. They hadn't been closer than Winston-Salem, N.C., back in 2007, when they lost to Georgegtown 80-55.
Byrd takes in an experienced team that averages 81.5 points a game and shoots 37.8 percent from 3-point range, including three Bruins better than 40 percent beyond the arc. Four players average in double figures, and they've spent the past week since winning their fifth A-Sun conference tournament working on boxing out better for rebounds and defensive rotation.
These Bruins won't shrink against Georgetown, not after losing the season opener 77-76 at Duke. These players also have had tough losses in the past two seasons at Tennessee and at Vanderbilt, so playing a Big East opponent is not daunting.
"Even though we didn't come out on top, they give us confidence that we can compete with anybody in the country," Hedgepeth said.
Timing may be best now. The Bruins move to the Ohio Valley Conference in July, home to Murray State where the Racers have won 15 tournament titles in a league where the automatic NCAA berth goes to the winner. This school sets its sights on big things with new buildings going up around campus with programs feeding graduates to Music Row in the capital of country music.
But Byrd said he thinks every NCAA opportunity is just as an important, downplaying the change of leagues making this trip even more crucial.
"Obviously, Murray State has a great team this year, and they've got a great program," Byrd said. "Maybe you could say it's going to be tougher to do this from now on, but overall I think the A-Sun has been as good as the OVC the last several years and so who knows what the future holds. Let's worry about this team trying to get this win I think is the best way to go about it."
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
Updated March 11, 2012