Belmont: Long Shots Say It All

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Georgetown's players may not have known much about Belmont when the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed on Sunday evening, but they knew one thing about their first-round opponent: "They have some good shooters out there," junior center Roy Hibbert said.

Belmont, a 4,500-student university in Nashville, is known for its music and music business programs, which have produced country music stars Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood. Its basketball program, making its second straight NCAA appearance as the Atlantic Sun tournament champion, is known for its three-point shooting.

"It's a big part of our game and our philosophy," said junior guard Justin Hare, who is one of four Bruins who has attempted at least 120 three-pointers this season. "We've got a lot of good shooters on our team, and usually we try to get one through four guys who can really step out and shoot the three."

The 15th-seeded Bruins (23-9), who will play second-seeded Georgetown (26-6) in the first round of the East region on Thursday afternoon in Winston-Salem, N.C., are 22nd in the country in made three-point shots per game (8.8). It is the eighth straight season they have ranked among the top 25 teams in the country.

In its 94-67 rout of East Tennessee State in the conference tournament final, Belmont made 12 three pointers in the first half. The Bruins have made 88 three-pointers in their current seven-game winning streak (an average of 12.6 per game). Against Gardner-Webb on Feb. 15, the Bruins were 17 of 29 from long range, with sophomore guard Andy Wicke hitting 10 of 12 three-point shots. Wicke, who has taken only 33 shots inside the arc this season, is shooting 45.7 percent from beyond it (75 of 164), the 10th-best percentage in Division I.

"They can put five shooters on the floor," said Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, whose team already has faced four of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the country (West Virginia, Oregon, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame).

"They spread you out and they make shots. . . . It's one of those teams where you have to stay focused on each individual person."

Belmont turned to the three-point shot out of necessity when it made the jump from NAIA to NCAA Division I during the 1996-97 season. The Bruins had success in the NAIA under Coach Rick Byrd, advancing to five NAIA tournaments and making the national semifinals twice (1995 and '96). But it was a challenge going to Division I, especially since the school was not eligible for the NCAA tournament in its first five seasons. That made recruiting difficult -- "You're not going to out-recruit people that are going to the tournament," Byrd said -- so he and his staff had to come up with a different approach.

"We felt like the most overlooked good basketball players were those with good skills that were maybe a touch less athletic or weren't as quick, yet they could shoot it and knew how to play," said Byrd, who has won more than 500 games in 21 seasons at Belmont. "We just felt that was our best chance to get as good as we could at that time. . . . I think it turned out to be an effective way for us to make the move. We certainly didn't defend well in the early years for that reason, but we had pretty good records."

The Bruins -- who finished second in the nation in three-pointers behind national champion Duke in 2000-01 -- are still able to attract good shooters. But now that they're in a conference and have a gleaming, four-year-old arena, it's been easier for Byrd to attract more athletic players. As a result, Belmont has posted some of its best defensive numbers ever, ranking ninth in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.387).

Byrd knows that the Bruins are going to have to play well on offense and defense to avoid the same fate they had in their first-ever NCAA trip; last year, they lost to second-seeded UCLA, 78-44, in San Diego.

"It's just easy to not have real high expectations the first time around," Byrd said. "After watching Georgetown, it's hard to have high expectations this time around. But I think it does help to get your team ready to do more than just show up and wear a big smile."

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