Nobody loves NCAA Championship Week more than I do. I have every intention of sitting on my couch as much as possible until Selection Sunday comes. I’ve decided that I’m going to track the teams from smaller conferences who win their conference championship and therefore earn an automatic bid. I shall then write my thoughts on these teams and determine just how far they will make it in this year’s tourney. We all remember George Mason last season. Will there be another small conference Cinderella in 2007?
The Belmont Bruins snuck into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun conference tournament championship. This was somewhat of a surprise as Belmont was the second best team in the conference during the regular season. East Tennessee State actually won the conference during the regular season but couldn’t secure an automatic bid. Belmont blew them out by 27 points in the conference championship game. Now Belmont is going dancing.
Looking at Belmont’s tournament resume it is almost certain that earning the automatic bid was the only way this team was going to make it to the big dance. They only played one team during the regular season, and while they gave Michigan State (at the time ranked 25) a good game on the road the fact is Belmont still lost. Truth be told their most impressive wins of the season came against East Tennessee State. On January 2 Belmont defeated the Buccaneers on the road in a thriller, winning 75-74. Then last week Belmont crushed East Tennessee State in the championship game to earn the automatic bid.
Some of the losses Belmont suffered during the season were to less than impressive teams to say the least. North Carolina-Wilmington defeated Belmont in the first game of the season. That was about it for the Seahawks, as they finished the season an abysmal 7-22. Middle Tennessee State (15-17, 8-10) got the better of Belmont in November, defeating the Bruins by 7. Campbell, a team that finished 14-17, defeated Belmont by 12 in mid-January. These are losses that just kill a team’s RPI.
Belmont is a team without one true superstar player needed to make a run into the tournament. Junior guard Justin Hare leads the team in scoring. He averages a modest 14. 4 points a game. Two seniors, Boomer Herndon and Andrew Preston, are the main big men down low. Herndon scores almost 11 points a game and averages 5.4 rebounds, while Preston puts up 8.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per outing. These players especially will have to pick up their game if Belmont hopes to win so much as won game once the tournament tips off.
Not everything is negative about the automatic bid from the Atlantic Sun. Belmont has won seven straight games and ten out of their last eleven. This may be redundant if you’ve read my other articles about the automatic bids but it cannot be stressed enough. The dangerous teams in the NCAA Tournament are the ones who are on a roll.
Experience is always a plus when it comes to March Madness. This is the second year in a row that Belmont has earned the automatic bid out of the Sun Conference, so this is a team that has been here before. It also doesn’t hurt that three of Belmont’s best players are all upperclassmen.
That fact still remains, however, that this is a team that would be playing in the three-letter tournament if not for the automatic bid. As much as I like the Atlantic Sun (I really do. Don’t ask me why) don’t expect much from this team. Of course it depends on where they get seeded in the tourney but don’t pencil in Belmont for more than one win in your bracket. Even doing that might be a stretch.