WASHINGTON (AP)—Next up on the Belmont Bruins’ tour of top college basketball programs: Duke.
Each of the previous two years, Belmont’s prize for winning the Atlantic Sun Conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament was a first-round matchup against a team that owns a significant place in the sport’s history.
Each time, Belmont pulled out to an early lead. And each time, Belmont lost by more than 20 points to a past national champion and eventual Final Four participant: UCLA in 2006, Georgetown in 2007.
Now 15th-seeded Belmont (25-8) faces No. 2 Duke (27-5) on Thursday in the West Regional.
“We’ve joked a little bit: We’re trying to play every storied team in the country. Next year, it might be Kentucky or Indiana, at the rate we’re going,” forward Will Peeples said before practice Wednesday. “After two years, we’ve got a little more confidence. Your first two experiences are kind of shock and awe. You’re trying to soak it up.”
No. 15-seeded teams are 4-88 against No. 2s; the last such upset came in 2001, when Hampton stunned Iowa State.
So while Belmont’s Rick Byrd—one of 16 active Division I head coaches with at least 500 career victories—is sure his players are better prepared than ever for what awaits against the Blue Devils, he isn’t exactly proclaiming his team is ready to shock the world.
Indeed, the initial words Byrd uttered as he sat on the dais for his pre-tournament news conference were: “Well, first I’d like to say we’re certainly happy to be here.”
Probably not quite the same approach adopted by his counterpart, Mike Krzyzewski, whose resume includes three national championships, 10 Final Four appearances, and a record 68 tournament victories.
In the days since Belmont clinched its third consecutive—and third-ever— NCAA invitation, Byrd has received all sorts of advice. The running theme, he said, has been: “If you really believe you can win, you can win.”
And Byrd’s response?
“If I really believed I could beat Tiger Woods, he’d beat me by about 25 shots. Even if I really believed,” he said. “We can believe it all we want, but the odds are stacked against us. It’s not impossible. For sure it’s not impossible. But it’s not just, ‘OK, you think you can win and you can.’ There’s about 800-something folks that thought they could beat Coach Krzyzewski, and they didn’t.”
The man known as Coach K actually enters this year’s tourney on an NCAA losing streak, albeit only a two-game slide. Duke was eliminated in the round of 16 in 2006, then in the opening round in 2007—the school’s first exit at that stage in a decade.
As he pointed out: “The sophomore class—they haven’t won a game in the NCAA tournament yet.”
Krzyzewski clearly has not allowed his current team to ignore what happened against Virginia Commonwealth last spring.
“There’s constant reminders from everybody, whether it’s coach or it’s us. We don’t want it to happen again,” guard Greg Paulus said. “It’s not something you can forget. It’s something we want to use to help us. We learned a lot last year. This year has been an opportunity to switch it around and that’s what we want to do.”
There figure to be plenty of 3-pointers from two of the nation’s 16 highest-scoring teams. Belmont leads tournament entrants in 3s made per game, at 10.6, and Duke averages 9.3.
On the other hand, the Bruins’ strength the past two seasons also was their prowess behind the arc, yet they shot a combined 10-for-45 (22 percent) on 3s against UCLA and Georgetown.
Still, Byrd figures his players—who beat Cincinnati and Alabama on the road this season and are riding a 13-game winning streak—are a lot less prone to nerves this time around.
“You have a better chance of playing like you normally play if you’re comfortable,” Byrd said, “and you’ve been there before.”