I know the phrase David vs Goliath is abused in sports - especially when referencing college basketball in the month of March. Still, be it a lack of creativity on my part or simply because there's no more fitting of a phrase, you'd be hard pressed to come up with a better way of describing tonight's Atlantic Sun Championship game.
Belmont was expected to be here and is expected to win, plain and simple. The Bruins obliterated the conference this season to the tune of a 19-1 regular season record, finishing with 29 wins overall to tie with Kansas for the Division 1 lead. Oh yea, they've never lost an Atlantic Sun title game and a win tonight would give them a conference-record 30 for the season.
North Florida on the other hand is some bizarre combination of the new kid and town and the kid brother that is just happy to be included with the big guys. The Ospreys are in just their second year of eligibility in the A-Sun Conference, are 1-10 all-time against Belmont, had to defeat two top three seeds to reach this point and are still below .500 for the season.
Sounds like fun doesn't it?
Belmont Bruins, #1 seed, 29-4 (19-1)
In the scope of Atlantic Sun basketball this team is a juggernaut and one that likes to play fast. The Bruins rank in the top 50 in pace according to data from Ken Pomeroy and are a very efficient offensive team, ranking 11th in the country in points per game and 21st in points per possession according to Synergy Sports Technology. What makes this team scary though - especially if they should crack the NCAA Tournament field - is they are devoid of a singular offensive weapon that needs to be neutralized. Like the Gorgan, if you cut off one snake head, you can tangle with the remaining seven or eight. Belmont has nine different players averaging between five and 13 points, yet ranks nationally in the top 40 for three-point field goal percentage, the top 20 for two-point field goal percentage and is 13th in the country with an effective field goal percentage of 54.3. Long story short, this is a team that is remarkably team oriented and efficient.
While Belmont has shown significant success across the board offensively this season, their two most apparent strengths have been spotting up and running in transition. Spot-up possessions accounted for nearly one-fourth of all possessions during the regular season, with the team producing an adjusted field goal percentage of 53.7 - that puts them in the same company as programs such as Villanova, Gonzaga and Louisville. Their propensity for perimeter shooting is even more noticeable in transition, where the Bruins do an excellent job of running the lanes and creating open opportunities. Consider that a field goal percentage of 55 jumps to nearly 63 when factoring in the added weight for three-pointers.
Defensively the Bruins may be even more impressive than on offense. Synergy places them in the top 10 nationally for defensive efficiency at just .76 points per possession allowed. This is due in no small part to the brilliant manner in which Belmont forces mistakes by their opponents. During the regular season they ranked second in the country in opponent turnover percentage, with opposing teams giving the ball away on a remarkable 27% of their possessions. That factor alone should prove to be a nightmarish ordeal for the Ospreys.
North Florida Ospreys, #6 Seed, 15-18 (10-10)
Sometimes you just get hot at the right time of year - enter the Ospreys. North Florida enters tonight's match-up riding a five-game winning streak but outmatched in every possible manner - at least on paper. Offensively this has a been a mediocre team and only average when you consider offensive efficiency. One number that instantly jumps out is the 20% turnover rate UNF has posted this season, something that certainly doesn't bode well against Belmont's tenacious defense. With that said, the team has had a good deal of success in isolation scoring situations where they rank in the top one-fourth nationally in offensive efficiency in these settings. A 23-point effort from Jerron Granberry in the quarter-final round was a welcome performance and another would go a long way today, but given that it was just his fourth 20-point performance of the season, don't count on it.
If there's any hope in this game for UNF it will be their defense. Overal the Osprey's are solid at this end of the floor, particularly when it comes to defending the perimeter where opposing teams are shooting just 31.7% from beyond the arc against them. This extends to spot up shooting altogether, where North Florida allows just .83 points per possessions in this setting, the 32nd best defensive efficiency mark in Division 1. If the Ospreys can pressure the perimeter and Belmont comes out ice cold, there's a chance.
UNF has been a nice story up to this point, but upending Belmont would require a monumental effort. The Bruins are good enough that a win in the NCAA Tournament doesn't seem out of the question either. Belmont wins with relative ease.
Note: Over at SB Nation Atlanta, the venerable Jason Kirk has continuing coverage of all the action in the Atlantic Sun Tournament, be sure to check it out!