In making its case for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth, Belmont’s margin of error is small.
With Monday’s announcement of ESPN’s BracketBusters matchups the Bruins also have room to pad their résumé.
Belmont will have a chance at a signature win when it hosts Ohio, a Sweet 16 team a year ago, on Feb. 23. The game will tip-off at 9 p.m. on ESPN2. The game between the Bruins (19-4) and Bobcats (15-6) will be one of 13 televised matchups for the 11th annual two-day event that pits potential NCAA Tournament contenders from across the country.
“I guess the whole concept behind [BracketBusters] is to help the [NCAA Tournament] committee choose the best teams,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “It would be a quality win. ... We’re in a spot where who knows what we can afford? Maybe we can afford no other losses at this point. You just don’t know how it is going to play out.”
Ohio, which reached the 2012 Sweet 16 after winning its first and second round games in Nashville, sits in second place in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference. The Bobcats had won seven in a row and their first six league games before a loss Saturday to Akron, which has the nation’s longest winning streak at 13 games. Ohio's RPI is 90 and point guard D.J. Cooper, who averages 14.6 points and ranks third in Division I with 8.2 assists, powers the attack.
“It is a quality opponent without a doubt,” Byrd said. “It is going to be a big night for us here. A chance to get a quality win against a good team. I guess it is a chance to get a quality loss too.”
In its first year in the Ohio Valley Conference, Belmont is 10-0 in the league and rides a 10-game winning streak into Thursday’s matchup with Murray State (16-5, 7-2). The matchup with the Racers is the first of four straight road games, including a crosstown tussle with Tennessee State on Feb. 14. TSU (13-10, 7-3) will host Loyola (Md.) in its non-televised BracketBusters matchup on Feb. 23.
Of the 122 teams participating in BracketBusters Belmont — at 18 — has the highest RPI. The Bruins also received votes in both national polls on Monday. They received one in the Associated Press poll and seven in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
None of that wasn’t enough for the Bruins to draw arguably the best team available, Creighton, in BracketBusters. The Blue Jays (20-3) are ranked 16th in the country and have an RPI of 28. They were paired with St. Mary’s (19-4, RPI of 58).
“Maybe a little disappointment. Not upset or angry about it,” Byrd said. “We had to be in the discussion. I think our RPI is probably the highest of all the schools. It would have maybe been nicer to be in that premier game. But who knows? Who knows where it leads? Again, you just have to take what you get and make the most of it. We’ve got four hard games, starting Thursday night, before we play that game.”