While many teams were fighting until the eleventh hour Sunday afternoon jockeying for tournament seeding – or a bid altogether – Belmont was at home resting, waiting. The Bruins beat Murray State, 88-87, in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship on March 7 – eight days before Selection Sunday.
“It’s really kind of nice in a lot of ways that you get to enjoy going and not have to just jump right into preparing for the next game,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “But it’s also difficult because you played all year long where you played at least two games a week. Now you got nine or 10 days (off). So yeah, our guys are ready to start preparing. I’m just not sure I’m ready to start watching Virginia’s defense yet.”
No. 15 Belmont (22-10, 11-5) will face No. 2 Virginia (29-3, 16-2) in East Regional action this Friday at 3:10 p.m. ET. The Bruins finished 32nd nationally in scoring offense (74.5 points per game), but Virginia led the country in scoring defense (50.8 points per game).
It should be a matchup of contrasting styles.
“It is,” Byrd said. “We don’t play against anybody that defends that well at that level, so I’ve just got to study. I’ve watched them as a fan. I have tremendous respect for Tony (Bennett) and the job he does. I mean, I really like their program in so many ways. For that reason, I’m really glad for the draw because I’d rather coach against guys that I really like (and) the way they go about it. But what I have to do now is see how they defend certain actions that we run and see if there’s some things that maybe we can get a quick look on – because it’s just going to be hard to get good, solid looks at the basket.”
Belmont has one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, as Craig Bradshaw, Evan Bradds, Taylor Barnette and Nick Smith all shot at least 39.3 percent from distance this season. The Bruins will need to be on point from deep to pull off the upset this Friday.
Byrd doesn’t anticipate sleeping much this week – especially not Sunday night.
“I got to be ready by 2 o’clock practice (Monday) to have some sort of a game plan,” Byrd said. “Offensively, anyway.”
Belmont advanced to the tournament thanks to arguably the best late-game sequence in college basketball this season. The Bruins trailed Murray State 87-85 in the OVC Championship when Byrd decided to go for the tie in the final seconds. A clock malfunction, however, halted play for a bit and gave Byrd time to change his thinking. Instead of going for the tie, he would go for the win.
Barnette hit an off-balanced three-pointer wit 3.2 seconds left to end Murray State’s 25-game winning streak and send the Bruins dancing.
“Taylor’s our best shooter against pressure, against guys in his face,” Byrd said. “He’s got a quick release. He’s got great range. And honestly, he shoots it about as good with people in his face in practice as he does standing out there shooting horse shots.”
Ironically enough, Barnette is a transfer from Virginia, so perhaps the sophomore can give Byrd some insight into the Cavaliers’ defense.
“I’m going to have a long sit-down with Taylor here over the next couple days,” Byrd said, laughing. “Don’t tell Coach Bennett, though.”