'That team that almost beat Duke' still can't quite finish things off
NASHVILLE -- The script was similar, almost to the point of plagiarism. The Belmont Bruins, perpetual feisty upstarts in dark blue uniforms, were standing toe-to-toe with another power conference opponent.
With a 10-0 run out of halftime, Belmont took control of its tilt with Tennessee, matching every second-stanza Vols run with a burst of its own. But in the end, key turnovers and missed free throws sealed a losing fate.
"That was definitely our most consistent effort of the year," said Belmont head coach Rick Byrd of his team's 79-77 loss in Knoxville on Dec. 20. "It was anybody's ballgame. We fell behind a little bit, came back, and we just didn't take advantage of the opportunities at the end. So yes, the trip to Tennessee was very similar to the Duke game in a lot of ways."
"The Duke game," of course, refers to the contest that put the Bruins on the national map last spring. On the first day of the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament, as America anticipated the first major upset of the Big Dance, 15th-seeded Belmont very nearly obliged.
Byrd's team didn't back down for over 39 minutes and held the ball under the Blue Devils' basket with 11.9 seconds to go and a one-point lead. When DeMarcus Nelson stole the inbounds pass, and later scored a running layup for a 71-70 final, Duke avoided becoming just the fifth No. 2 seed to fall in the first round.
But heartbreak was short-lived for the three-time Atlantic Sun champions, who had lost by a combined 59 points in their previous two NCAA appearances against UCLA and Georgetown. During the summer, expectations were high for a return to the Big Dance and a fourth conference championship in just eight years since rising from the ranks of the independents.
A trio of seniors who already have three NCAA tournaments under their belts leads the 2008-09 version: 6-foot-8 forward Matthew Dotson, 3-point shooter Andy Wicke and defensive specialist Henry Harris. As such, Belmont was an easy pick as preseason favorite to pull off the A-Sun four-peat.
"I think it'd be special to make it to the Dance all four years," said Harris. "Especially on a team like Belmont. We're not what anyone would call a high-major program. In a league like ours, you wouldn't expect a team to take over four years in a row. So we're extremely motivated to do this again."
And in its two nonconference shots against top competition, Belmont has picked up right where it left off against Duke. In addition to the near-miss at Tennessee, the Bruins hold the distinction of being the only team so far this season to outboard current national No. 1 Pittsburgh, the top rebounding team in the deep Big East.
On Nov. 20, the Bruins out-glassed Pitt 41-30, and kept the final score to 74-60. That 14-point gap is somewhat of an outlier, in amongst a long series of Panther poundings, and matches the same deficit that mighty Georgetown managed against the No. 1 team in the country.
Against other mid-majors, though, the Bruins' motivation has flagged. Surprisingly, Belmont's record stands at a pedestrian 7-6, and a 3-1 league record has the team looking up at 4-0 East Tennessee State in the conference standings. The team's national identity may be defined by close calls against known names, but second-half collapses against members of its peer group have been cataclysmic.
At home against OVC champion Austin Peay on Nov. 17, in the second game of the season, the Bruins blew a 13-point lead and lost 86-84. In a rematch of the 2008 A-Sun title game at Jacksonville, Belmont yielded a 19-point advantage and fell by one. Disaster struck again on Dec. 29 in California, when an 18-point lead against Santa Clara dissolved into an 83-80 loss.
Could the Bruins -- by far the deepest and most experienced team in the one-bid A-Sun -- simply be satisfied with prior success? Bored, even?
"I think the jury's out a little bit on that," said Byrd. "We've got some [seniors] who show up and play with a commitment to this team and this year, and we have a few that need to do better. You can play bad, and that's OK sometimes, but you've got to play hard. It's been a mixed bag with our seniors so far."
One of the team's top scorers acknowledges that a touch of senioritis has set in.
"It's been a roller coaster, man," said Alex Renfroe, a two-year NAIA transfer who tallied 15 points against Duke last March and poured in 30 against the cross-state Volunteers inn December. "There have been a lot of ups and downs of this season. I'm just trying to be more consistent. I'll have a great game, like against Tennessee, then the next I might just be mediocre. I'm just trying to stay on a high level of play."
Finding focus has been harder during league games. In the Atlantic Sun opener against Jacksonville, against a Dolphins team driven to avenge a 79-61 nationally televised thrashing last March, Belmont allowed a major comeback.
And on Monday night at home against Florida Gulf Coast, a league member not yet eligible for the national postseason, the Bruins wandered the Curb Events Center floor as aimlessly as John McCain and Barack Obama did during the presidential town-hall debate here in September. Belmont broke open the game late in the first half with a 14-4 burst, and did just enough for the rest of the contest to manage a 12-point win.
Teams traditionally lean on senior leadership, and four Bruins seniors currently average double-figure scoring. But if Belmont succeeds in capturing a fourth championship, it might be due to a different dynamic altogether: the hunger and energy of the youth movement.
Junior 6-9 reserve Keaton Belcher, a key component of the team's 2009-10 plans, is one of the team's most efficient point producers, scoring 19 per 40 minutes (alternately read as 7.9 ppg). Jon House is a 6-6 sophomore who leads the team in shooting percentage at 53.2 percent and whose scoring average (8.2 ppg) represents a fourfold increase over his first-year average.
And Jonny Rice is a redshirt freshman guard who is making the most of his seven minutes per contest, shooting 54 percent from the floor and making half of his 3-pointers in limited action. He sat on the sidelines last March as his future teammates battled Duke.
"I wanted to play so bad, just get in that game," said Rice. "But last year I got a lot done with school, and it gave me time to learn the plays. Every minute I get on the floor, I just want to make the most of it and get better. And hopefully we'll get another chance to play in the NCAA tournament."
But their coach knows there's a lot of work to do before March, and that his senior-laden squad has squandered too many missed chances.
"We could be 11-2 right now," said Byrd. "We've lost four games at the buzzer and three double-figure halftime leads. Teams good enough to go to the NCAA tournament don't do that. That's not the way we usually play. We should be taking care of the ball, we should make free throws, all those things that put us in the position to win those championships. Last summer, I felt like this team was on the verge of being one of those that could make a good run by January, maybe win 25 or 26 games."
While a gaudy record is no longer possible, there's plenty of time to put together another strong conference season, another three-day run at the A-Sun tourney, and another automatic bid and No. 15 seed. Pass all those hurdles, and the Bruins will have another shot at the power-conference competition they've been more than comfortable facing.
"I still think this team has more potential than any of the other three teams," said Byrd. "We just haven't lived up to it yet."
Kyle Whelliston is a contributor to ESPN.com.