There aren’t many surprise teams that can make a run to the Sweet 16. More importantly, there are even fewer Mid Major teams that go unscathed through the first weekend of March Madness. However, college basketball usually presents at least five teams that are thriving under the radar that could make a nice run. Sometimes, these teams are so under the radar, you never see them coming. However, certain teams are quietly building resumes on a local level that are ready to descend on a first round site near you. Winning one game happens plenty of times. But what teams can actually win two games and appear in the Sweet 16 round. Over the course of the rest of the season, we will highlight quality Mid Major teams that can shock the world during March Madness.
Belmont Bruins (17-6, 9-1): 1st in Ohio Valley Conference
If any program knows the heartbreak of never winning an NCAA Tournament game it’s the Belmont Bruins. Okay, that maybe overly dramatic, however, the Bruins have never won an NCAA Tournament game in seven tries. Head coach Rick Byrd has been their head coach for all 19 seasons in Division 1 basketball. The Bruins have made all their NCAA Tournament trips since the 2006 season. Unfortunately, five of those runs came as a participant in the Atlantic Sun. Meaning, the Bruins have only earned the automatic bid twice since joining the Ohio Valley Conference in 2012-13 season. Despite all of their success, the Bruins have not made the Field of 68 since 2015. As a result, the Bruins know that the OVC Tournament is more important than anything else. Why? Because this conference continues to be a 1-bid league.
Here’s a breakdown of how great the Bruins have really been in the OVC.
2013-14: (14-2) 1st place in OVC East- Lost in Conference Championship
2014-15: (11-5) 1st place in OVC East- Won Championship- 1st Rd NCAA Tournament
2015-16: (12-4) 1st place in OVC East- Lost in Conference Semis
2016-17: (15-1) 1st place in OVC East- Lost in Conference Semis
The Bruins were (52-12) over the prior four seasons in conference play. They won 91 total games in that time frame. Yet and still, the Bruins only made one NCAA Tournament field. Therefore, it’s not even close to a done deal for the Bruins to get back into March Madness for the first time since 2015. However, if they do, they have a team that can make a run into the second weekend. In similar fashion to past units, the Bruins look like the best team in the conference. They can also lose at any given moment in a one-and-done situation. Their only conference loss came to the Jacksonville State Gamecocks. More importantly, the Gamecocks might be their toughest competition. They could also meet in the semifinals again.
The Bruins are scoring 76 points per game. They are led by a pair of dynamic forwards that aren’t shy from 3-point range. The Bruins have been known for their 3-point shooting and they might have more shooters than ever before. Dylan Windler and Amanze Egekeze lead the Bruins with 17.4 and 16.2 points apiece. They also lead the team in 3-point shooting and rebounding. The two forwards combine to take 11.5 3-pointers per game. Windler is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc, while Egekeze is at 40 percent. In all, the Bruins have four players at 40 percent or better from 3-point range. Overall, the Bruins shoot 37 percent from 3-point range. That’s only ranked 92nd in the country. However, they take the third most 3-pointers in college basketball. The Bruins are attempting 30 3-pointers per game.
The Bruins shoot so many threes, opposing defenses are left scrambling to cover the arc. It’s one reason why the Bruins are shooting over 60 percent from 2-point range. In other words, the Bruins have the second best percentage inside the 3-point line in all of college basketball. Moreover, the Bruins have pretty good ball movement. So far, they have 100 more assists than their opponents in 23 games. They lead the conference in assists, as well.
However, their lack of size is troubling in certain instances. Right now, the Bruins are averaging 8.5 offensive rebounds per game in conference play. Furthermore, the turnover game will be key to how the Bruins maneuver through the conference. They have 54 steals in 10 conference games. Meaning, the Bruins have to play great defense without forcing an inordinate amount of turnovers. Furthermore, the Bruins are No. 8 with 28 blocks in conference play.
Clearly, the Bruins are an offensive minded bunch. Therefore, the team will run smoothly as long as point guard Austin Luke plays well. Luke is producing 8.8 points and 7.1 assists, while shooting 42 percent from the 3-point range. He’s shooting 45 percent from the field, overall. Luke also turns the ball over 3.4 times per game. Therefore, he can make major improvement over the final month of the season.
What makes the Bruins a tough-out is their ability to divvy up the shot attempts. They have six players attempting between 5.3 and 11 shots per game. Since nobody is taking the majority of the shots, they are hard to cover due to predictability. But will the Bruins have role players making big shots in the most important moments?
The Bruins have eight games left before the start of the OVC Tournament. Five of those games are on the road, including four straight contests to begin February. The Bruins also have a rematch with the Jaguars in the second to last game of the season. One way or another, a message will be sent in preparation for the conference tournament.