Belmont’s last two NCAA Tournaments have presented sizable challenges — literally.
In 2011, Wisconsin’s starting lineup featured three forwards, including 6-foot-10 Jon Leuer, who victimized the Bruins for 22 points. Last year, Georgetown played three forwards and a center — all four 6-8 or taller — and Henry Sims and Otto Porter combined for 31 points and 12 rebounds.
And that’s when Belmont had 6-9 Mick Hedgepeth and 6-10 Scott Saunders.
Now, the Bruins are more undersized than ever with none of their regulars measuring taller than 6-7. However, in order to snap out of its NCAA Tournament losing streak, they’ll have to play bigger than their size when they open against No. 6 seed Arizona on Thursday (6:20 p.m., TNT) in Salt Lake City.
“Losing those games definitely was good for us,” senior forward Brandon Baker said. “I think we understand more what it takes to win. We understand the physicality and size we’re going to play against and how to best beat that.”
Arizona (25-7) utilizes three players 6-8 or taller. Standing higher than the rest is 7-foot, 255-pounder Kaleb Tarczewski. He has started every game and contributes on the front line along with Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett.
The freshman trio combines to average 19.5 points and 14.9 rebounds. They also tallied 70 blocks. Their size helped the Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in rebounding defense, allowing just 30.3 rebounds a game. Belmont ranked eighth in the Ohio Valley Conference with 32.2 rebounds a game.
Belmont (26-6) hopes Arizona’s youth and tournament inexperience in the post plays to its advantage. The Bruins have a senior-laden team, including in the post with 6-6 Baker and starting center Trevor Noack.
“That means they are really sophomores now,” coach Rick Byrd said. “They’ve had a year to get better and they are getting better. They are young guys. And they will have a little problem at times probably guarding guys that can shoot it from the perimeter. They’re not used to it. No [center] likes to guard guys who can make 3s.”
Noack poses that problem for the Wildcats.
The former small/power forward is not afraid to step outside and shoot from beyond the arc. At 6-7 and 240 pounds, he has made 38 of 91 3-pointers for 41.8 percent — the second-highest clip on the team. Shooting guard Ian Clark leads the team and the country at 46.3 percent.
As a team, Belmont shoots 38.6 percent from 3-point range. Arizona has allowed opponents to make 36 percent of its 3s for the worst mark in the Pac-12.
“They have pretty big post play,” Noack said. “That provides some challenges but it also creates some advantages.”
But Byrd cautioned against reading too much into the 3-point statistics. He said Arizona coach Sean Miller knows Belmont relies heavily on the trey and will do his best to take that strength away. Thus, Byrd said, creating balance inside is vital.
“If we had a little bit more of an interior game then I think it might be better for us to get 3-point shots,” he said.
The outcome may very well be decided on the perimeter. Arizona’s top three scorers are guards Mark Lyons (14.8) and Nick Johnson (11.7) and wing Solomon Hill (13.4). Belmont is led by the backcourt tandem of Clark (18.1) and Kerron Johnson (13.7). But, this time, the Bruins plan to make sure their size — or lack thereof — isn’t a liability.
“They’re a really big team and we’re going to have to box out,” Baker said. “But we have some length and we have guys who do the right things fundamentally. Since we know that is going to be their biggest strength we’re going to have to take it away. I think we’ll be able to do that.”