Breaking down the Belmont Bruins
Threes, rebounds, and turnovers crucial in opening round
Kyle Wasson / Arizona Daily Wildcat
The UA men’s basketball team traveled to Las Vegas, March 13-16, for the 2012-13 Pac-12 Basketball Tournament. Although the Wildcats won their first matchup against Colorado, they fell to UCLA in the semi-finals for the third time this season.
The potentially final game of the Arizona men’s basketball season tips off at 4:20 p.m. as the sixth-seeded Wildcats take on the No. 11-seeded Belmont Bruins in Salt Lake City for a second-round game in the NCAA tournament.
Arizona (25-7, 12-6 Pac-12) finished the regular season ranked No. 21 in the AP Poll, one of only 11 teams to be ranked in the poll the entire season. But the Wildcats are 5-5 in their last 10 games and don’t exactly have a good track record against the Bruins this year.
It’s time to break down Arizona’s battle with Belmont (26-6, 14-2 OVC) in what is considered a trendy upset pick.
“Whatever they say is a part of what they do as a professional and it doesn’t affect me or how I play on the court,” senior forward Solomon Hill said. “Everyone on our team knows that we’re a great team. People are always going to throw things out like that because everyone is there to play. The fact is that we’re there to win, just like everybody else.”
After Arizona’s loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal, head coach Sean Miller brought up the Wildcats’ blend of youth and experience. This mix of veteran leadership and youthful athleticism has given Arizona depth and balance all season long.
Really, the only area the Wildcats have really struggled in is 3-point defense. And that’s exactly where Belmont excels.
Arizona is ranked No. 276 in three-point defense in the nation, allowing opponents to shoot 36 percent from deep against them. In the final loss of the season, UCLA made just 1-of-12 from deep, but in the other six losses, opponents shot about 50 percent from beyond the arc. That could be problematic considering that Belmont’s top scorer, guard Ian Clark, leads the nation with a three-point percentage of 46.3.
“We have to be aggressive on defense,” Hill said. “They have a great scorer, a very efficient player [Clark]. They can shoot the ball from every position. If they decide to live by the 3-point line, we have done a great job, especially in the last tournament, at keeping teams off the 3-point line.
“From the way we have been playing these past couple games, we are ready for any challenge.”
But Clark, a senior who averages 18.1 points per game, isn’t the only weapon for the Bruins. Belmont is ranked fourth in the nation for field goal percentage (49.4 percent) and has another sharpshooter in senior forward Trevor Noack (41.8 percent).
Arizona guard Nick Johnson was designated as the team’s defensive stopper. If Arizona wants to stave off the upset, it’ll need Johnson to lock down Clark. Or hope the Bruins have a cold shooting night.
Rebounding down low
Arizona’s size down low has been crucial at times this year, with the three freshmen big men and sophomore Angelo Chol giving Arizona a height advantage in most games. But Arizona doesn’t need the 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski to tower over the Bruins. Heck, small forward Solomon Hill would be the tallest starter on Belmont.
Noack and forward Blake Jenkins are the tallest regulars for the Bruins at 6-foot-7. Center Chad Lang does reach 6-foot-11, but the sophomore only saw 84 total minutes this season. Not surprisingly, then, Belmont is No. 198 in total rebounding percentage.
If Arizona can control the glass, it’ll limit second-chance points (while scoring plenty itself) and help slow down the game. This all equals fewer open looks from three for Clark and Belmont, which is the key of the game.
Controlling the ball
The Wildcats haven’t exactly been the most careful team with the ball this season. With no true point guard on the team — senior Mark Lyons is a combo guard at best — Arizona has had its fair share of trouble with turnovers.
Arizona sits near the middle of the pack (No. 161) with 13.1 turnovers per game, and Lyons has 29 assists to 33 turnovers in games against tournament opponents.
Turnovers aren’t always the death of Arizona, though, as the Wildcats beat Southern Miss early in the season despite 27 giveaways. That said, Belmont won’t make ball control easy Thursday.
The Bruins are fifth in steals per game (9.8) and eighth in opponent turnovers per game (17.4). Junior forward J.J. Mann and senior guard Kerron Johnson lead the defensive scrappiness for Belmont.
“Their ability to shoot the three at four and five spots, your turnovers can lead to threes and easy baskets,” Miller said Sunday. “Hopefully, learning the value of taking care of the ball can help us here.”
Johnson is also the team’s second-leading scorer (13.7 points per game), giving the Bruins a dangerous — and experienced — backcourt.
Arizona obviously has the talent advantage and doesn’t lack senior leadership, as is sometimes the case with major conference teams. The game is also in Salt Lake City, giving the Wildcats a nice home court advantage.
Miller’s side is as strong of a sixth seed as they come this year. But Belmont is an equally dangerous 11-seed.
The Bruins won at Stanford (70-62) and against Oral Roberts (70-67), but so did Arizona. Also, all six of Belmont’s losses came away from home (11-6 on the road and neutral sites).
If Arizona plays well, it should advance to the second round. Don’t be surprised if Belmont snatches the upset, though, because this is exactly the type of team the Wildcats wanted to avoid in the first round.
“Against a team like Belmont, you have to get at them early,” Hill said. “You don’t want them to hang around. We really need to keep our foot on the gas and have a complete game.”