Belmont coach Rick Byrd, master of the sweater vest.
Only two more days til your Georgetown Hoyas kick off tournament play with a game against Belmont. The Bruins are seeded fourteenth in the Midwest Region but, as you probably have heard, first in seemingly every upset-minded prognosticator's heart. The groundswell started as soon as the Hoya-Bruin match-up was announced; within forty-eight hours, even the Gray Lady felt compelled to weigh in on Belmont's side.
While visions of double-digit upsets past may be haunting Hoya fans' dreams, these aren't last year's Hoyas, let alone the year before's, as we've seen throughout this season. There's also the fact that almost no one saw Ohio or VCU coming, least of all Georgetown. Belmont, on the other hand, is riding a 14-game winning streak into Friday's game, scores the fourth-most points per game in the country, has been on everyone's radar since last season's tournament appearance or, failing that, since barely missing a big upset at Cameron Indoor to start the season. And, as noted, they're penciled in everyone's bracket already. This year, the Hoyas should see the challenge in front of them. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose, right? Let's get to it!
It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. By now, the basic details of Belmont's story are familiar. The Bruins first appeared in the tournament just six years ago, but this will be their fifth appearance in that short window. Their second voyage, in 2007, ran aground in the first round thanks to your Final Four-bound Georgetown Hoyas. But progress continued apace, and last year the Bruins were a trendy first-round upset pick before running into Wisconsin's buzz-saw of efficiency. The core of that Bruin squad returned this year, making for a talented, veteran bunch still in search of its first tournament win. After a slow start, the Bruins have won 19 of 21 and 14 straight, putting up eye-opening efficiency numbers, particularly on offense, where they shoot somewhere north of 100 percent.
Bruins to Know. Belmont has a very solid seven-man rotation, with other Bruins serving spot duty. The starting back-court consists of a do-it-all point guard, Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg, 5.2 apg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 stl pg), plus two sharp-shooters, Drew Hanlen (10.9 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.4 rpg, 48.1 3FG%) and Ian Clark (12.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 40.7 3FG%). Hanlen capably slides over to point guard when Johnson gets a breather, while Clark is a dangerous spot-up shooter who also fills the wing in transition. Up front, Belmont has senior center Mick Hedgepeth (9.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) who, at 6'9", 230 lb., is bigger and more skilled than your typical mid-major center. So, too, is his capable back-up, the 6'10", 250-lb. Scott Saunders (10.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), who becomes one of the team's primary options once he checks into the game. Wing J.J. Mann (8.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg) rounds out the rotation with hustle and timely scoring.
Special Alert: Schedule Matters. As good as they've been, the Bruins' story isn't so simple. The specific problem is judging a team that played so well against a schedule that's so weak. How weak? The Bruins played just six games against teams rated in the Ken Pomeroy's top 100, and just two more against teams rated in the top-100 on either side of the ball. In other words, 26 of Belmont's 34 foes were worse than 100th generally, but also on both offense and defense specifically. By comparison, Georgetown played against just seven such teams, and only six additional games against teams outside the top 100 generally, sweeping all 13.
This isn't to say Belmont isn't good; they're getting Cinderella buzz for some good reasons, which we'll get into in a minute. It's more to say that many of the Bruins' wins, like their 46-point drubbing of Towson, are as illuminating as the Hoyas' 40-point beatdown of NJIT, or Bill Murray swatting a third-grader. Those wins may mean something if you're a margin-of-victory fetishist, but not if you care about what's going to happen on Friday. Comparing odds posted by Pomeroy with those by the wizards at Hoya Prospectus, it becomes clear that considering only Belmont's games against top-100 foes leads to somewhat longer odds of an upset on Friday. As we take a closer look at the upcoming match-up, let's focus on the few similar teams Belmont has faced, especially Memphis, the two teams' lone common opponent.
When Belmont Has the Ball.
- Belmont's strength: finding the open shooter. You probably already have heard about Belmont's prolific three-point shooting; the Bruins net 38 percent of their tries, the 30th best mark in the country. But the three-point shooting is just a consequence of their real strength, which is their continuous motion to get open shots. They push the ball in transition from turnovers, defensive rebounds, and even off of made baskets. Forced into a half-court "four out, one in" set, Belmont's guards and wings revolve around either Hedgepeth or Saunders in the post, cutting, screening, and passing their way to shot after open shot. In all, more than 62 percent of Bruin baskets come off of assists, and Belmont boasts the 12th most efficient offense in the country, roughly on par with former Hoya foes Kansas, Syracuse, and Memphis.
- Bruin to watch: Kerron Johnson. Many of us already have turned Drew Hanlen, with his eye-popping 48-percent three-point percentage, into some combination of Jimmy Chitwood and Stephen Curry. He definitely needs to be checked, but he doesn't make the Bruin offense tick by himself; he averages under 11 points per game and handles the ball about as much as Markel Starks. Rather, the Hoyas must lock down on Johnson, the point guard who frequently pushes the Bruins' offensive tempo. Johnson fights his way into the lane and to the line, where he gets six freebies per game, all while leading the Bruins with 5.2 assists per game. For a defense that at times has struggled to contain aggressive lead guards, stopping Johnson will be paramount.
- Against top-100 defenses. Belmont was .500 in its six games against top-100 defenses, which included Duke (62nd; lost by 1); Memphis (11th; lost by 16, worst of the season); Middle Tennessee (45th; split two three-point decisions); and Mercer (73rd; won two games by five points combined). Belmont shot its customary 38% from three in just one of these six games, shooting five percentage points below their three-point average in these games as a whole. They also were off from inside the arc, making a merely very good 51.2 percent rather than their usual, sparkling 54.7, with both centers' scoring dropping off.
- Memphis observation. Watching the Belmont-Memphis game, two things became clear. First, the Bruins are really well-coached. They punish transition defenses that are slow or, in Memphis's case, unalert. Their big men run straight down the middle of the floor with their heads up for passes, their guards push the ball, and their wings fill their lanes. On the other hand, Belmont was hesitant in the face of a long, quick Memphis defense. The Bruins frequently passed up looks that, while not clearly open, were as much as the Tigers were going to give them. On the whole, Belmont made just 6 of 20 threes, and went more than six minutes without a field goal to start the game.
- Hoyas' strength: length. Belmont has a very, very good offense. But it'll be strength v. strength on Friday, and there are a couple of reasons to think that Georgetown's defense will give the Bruins trouble. One is the Hoyas' defensive discipline, which has caused opponents problems throughout the season. The Hoyas hold their opponents to the lowest three-point percentage in the country while also giving up very few second chances on the offensive boards and blocking a high percentage of shots, the last of which is a particular Belmont weakness. In a related story, the Hoyas are long, ranking 34th in the country in effective height. Belmont, which often features a three-man back-court all measuring 6'3" and under, has struggled with similar opponents, losing to Memphis (94th), and going just 1-3 against other "long" teams (losses to Duke and Miami (Ohio) and a split with Marshall).
- Hoya to watch: Otto Porter. The freshman forward has been emblematic of Georgetown's defensive resurgence, cleaning the glass while swarming the perimeter. Friday, Georgetown will try to use its defensive length to shrink the court, narrowing the windows in which the Bruins can operate. Porter, second on the team in both blocks and steals and first in rebounds, will be key to closing down the Belmont attack.
- Looming question: pace? Belmont plays at the same fast pace as Memphis, often seeking offense through a structured secondary break that is stylistically reminiscent of North Carolina's (even if the talent isn't the same). The Bruins also try to speed the game up with their press, which they use, particularly after made baskets, to moderate success. It's worth noting that this fast pace is a big part of the reason the Bruins score so many points; you can't get to 81 points per game just by shooting a high percentage. While the Hoyas proved they can keep up with the Tigers, they prefer to keep things slow. Doing so Friday, and thereby limiting Belmont's transition opportunities, will be a point of emphasis.
When Georgetown Has the Ball.
- Bruins' strength: forcing turnovers. Overall, Belmont has a good-enough defense, but one that would rate just 12th in the Big East, even assuming it could hold up against improved competition. Among middling offerings, the Bruins' best defensive indicator is forcing turnovers. Last year, they took the ball away at the second-highest rate mark in the country, but this year they're down to just under 21 percent, a decent, not-great mark. But the Bruins still play aggressive, close man-to-man defense, and their four most-used guards each average a steal or better per game. The turnover-prone Hoyas will have to keep their guard (ha, ha) up against the Bruins.
- Against top-100 offenses. The best offenses Belmont has faced vary tactically, but in the Bruins' six games against Duke, Memphis, Marshall (twice), and Middle Tennessee (twice), the Bruins struggled to contest opponents' shots. While Bruin foes generally shoot 46.6 percent from two and 33.7 percent from three, these six opponents collectively shot 51.0 from two and 39.6 percent from three, numbers far more indicative of a very weak defense. Obviously, no team faces all top-100 offenses, but Belmont will have to stop one on Friday.
- Memphis observation. Memphis scorched the nets against Belmont, shooting 50 percent from three, and even better inside the arc, where the Tigers made 61 percent of their shots. The high three-point percentage was due at least in part to the open looks allowed by a Belmont defense that was a step slow on rotations and a few inches too short. But the Tigers really made hay by getting into the lane, where the small Bruin defenders were helpless.
- Hoyas' strength: establish the post(s). This has been the theme for three games running. Georgetown might be able to replicate Memphis's success from the outside, but the Hoyas' outside shooting has proven to be no sure thing. Instead, the Hoyas should focus on working the ball inside, thereby making the most of their size advantage. Belmont will alternate their twin bigs against Henry Sims, but will struggle to contain the Hoyas' forwards. An extra-large line-up featuring Sims in the high post plus three out of four of Nate Lubick, Porter, Hollis Thompson, and Greg Whittington (plus Jason Clark) should be able to get open looks near the rim.
- Hoya to watch: Henry Sims. Sims asserted himself in New York, abusing two smaller defenses en route to a pair of 20-10 games. The senior big man brought both good and bad, thoroughly dominating some stretches of the game while frittering away other opportunities with missed free throws and clumsy turnovers. Big Hank will need to protect the ball against a Bruin defense that has active hands, and also will need to impose his will on the opposing bigs.
- Looming question: veteran shooting? Both Clark and Thompson have been up and down of late, each disappearing for most of the Pitt game and during the bulk of the Cincinnati collapse. The Hoyas will need at least one sniper firing on Friday to be able to stretch the Belmont defense and free up the Hoya big men inside. These two are most likely to provide that outside shooting.
- Rest or rust? Georgetown last played on Thursday the 8th, giving it an 8-day layoff before Friday's game. Belmont has been on the shelf even longer, with a 13-day waiting period between its March 3rd conference final and the match-up with Georgetown. (Nice arithmetic, huh?) The team that looks sharper early could build a decisive advantage.
- Mistakes. Rewatching the Belmont-Memphis game, it's clear that the Tigers shot out of their mind, but they also did a lot of things that were very, very, well...Memphis. Multiple lane violations on free throws. Three-pointers jacked with 30+ seconds on the shot clock. Plenty of missed defensive assignments. Apparently falling asleep for several straight minutes. So whatever Memphis gained by a few hot hands, it might have lost just as much by self-infliction. On Friday, Belmont is unlikely to beat itself, and Georgetown also will have to limit its miscues.
Prediction. In case the stampede to proclaim Belmont the surefire upset wasn't enough, the Bruins' track record should make Georgetown take them seriously. They're are a veteran bunch who are hungry for a program-defining win, and have the typical profile (extremely efficient offense, sharp three-point shooting) of a team that pounces on an unsuspecting big dog. But the Bruins may be a bit porous defensively, and their track record is middling against quality competition. Friday, they'll get just that from a Hoya squad that has disproven most assumptions about it this year. A formerly veteran, offensive-minded team has been replaced by a young, hungry, defensive group that has exceeded all expectations to date. That defensive tenacity, along with solid inside play, has given the Hoyas a more reliable core than in seasons past. Against Belmont, expect another tough battle in a season full of them. There likely will be ugly stretches in which the Bruins rattle off a few straight buckets. But the Hoyas have been playing games like this all season long, and have the superior defense and length to shut down Belmont. Georgetown 68, Belmont 60.