Only three Division I programs have earned automatic NCAA Tournament bids at least seven times in the last 11 years.
Two of them are obvious. There’s the Kansas Jayhawks, who seem to win the Big 12 regular season every year. Then there’s Gonzaga, the consistent class of the West Coast Conference.
The third team? The Belmont Bruins.
While the Bruins don’t get the attention that the Jayhawks and Bulldogs get, they’ve been every bit as successful in the regular season, and are poised to make some noise this year in March.
In the classroom, behind the three-point line and in conference wins, the Bruins are in a class by themselves. Since 2001, Belmont leads the nation in Academic All-Americans with 14. Since 2003, the Bruins have won more conference games (234) than any Division I team, and since 1996, head coach Rick Byrd’s team is second only to Duke in three-point baskets.
Being the powerhouse of the Ohio Valley Conference doesn’t garner much national acclaim, but the Bruins put players in the NBA (Ian Clark, Golden State), win conference championships (they just clinched their fourth regular season title in five years), and were recently named as the No. 11 program in America by Basketball Times.
Belmont (21-5, 14-1) has won the East Division championship in each of its five OVC seasons, after claiming conference championships in their final three Atlantic Sun Conference campaigns.
Head coach Rick Byrd recruits high school players and tends to be wary of signing transfers. And in keeping with tradition, his players this year perform on the floor, in the classroom, and they shoot from long range. Belmont is tenth nationally in made three-pointers per game (10.1).
Byrd’s teams play fundamentally sound basketball, but they don’t pass the airport test. They’re not much to look at, but as North Carolina and other Power 5 conference teams have learned in recent years, teams must be prepared for their precision-like offense.
Belmont is led by defending OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds, and the Bruins have dominated the OVC this season. The 6’7 senior is the conference’s second-leading scorer (21.0 points per game) and third-leading rebounder (8.8 per contest). Roaming mostly in the paint, Bradds’ .628 field goal percentage is impressive, but not quite as good as his nation-leading 76 percent from last season.
Byrd is in his 36th year coaching, and the Bruins’ head man has recorded 751 career victories. But he is no dinosaur. He believes in the latest advanced metrics and has his team shooting the three, but he prefers to work inside (to Bradds) and then back out again to his wide array of long distance sharp shooters.
Five different Bruins average at least one triple per game, with the most prolific bomber being sixth man Nick Smith. He’s making 45 percent of his long distance attempts and has been even better in league play, knocking down an incredible 50 percent (41 of 82).
In OVC action, five different Bruins average double figures in scoring, and junior point guard Austin Luke knows how to distribute the rock. His 7.4 assists per game is second only to UCLA superstar Lonzo Ball’s 7.6.
Due to mid-major biases and a non-conference schedule that lacked those proverbial signature wins, Belmont will have to win the OVC Tournament to return to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins don’t have impressive athletes, but their team height (Smith, Bradds, third leading scorer Amanze Egekeze, and fourth leading scorer Dylan Windler all stand 6’7 or taller) gives them a chance with more physical teams. They defend the three-point line well, allowing just 32 percent of their opponents’ long distance attempts to drop.
The wild card for this edition of Belmont basketball is second-leading scorer (11.6 points per game) Taylor Barnette. The left-handed gunslinger takes more three-point attempts than anyone on the team (186), but has connected below 29 percent of the time, despite his reputation for making big shots.
During the 2015 OVC Tournament (Music City Madness) he made the go-ahead three-pointer in the semifinals and connected on the game-winning trey in the final seconds of the championship game. For his heroics, Barnette was named the tournament MVP. If he gets hot at the right time, he’s the type of game-changing player that could help Cinderella find her glass slipper.