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The Hoos open the NCAA tournament against the Belmont Bruins, a 15 seed. Belmont is RPI #105, which isn't all that bad. But both BPI and KenPom, which actually count overall performance, not just game outcomes, have them ranked 151 and 149 respectively. That is a better picture of their ability, and it isn't a particularly pretty one, at least for their faithful.
Ironically, last year's team was probably a lot better than this year's team. Last year, they beat UNC in Chapel Hill, and went 14-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference. This year their best win is Murray State (in the conference tournament final), they finished 11-5 in conference and they lost to 310th ranked (on KenPom) Jacksonville State. Last year's team had conference player of the year J.J. Mann, who is now gone as well as the rest of front court from last year. The Bruins did not beat a single NCAA Tournament team, losing by 27 to VCU and by 11 to Butler. Only 5 NCAA tournament teams are rated lower on KenPom than the Bruins.
So, considering all of that, this should be a walk in the park for the Hoos, right? Unfortunately, maybe not. The first thing that jumps off the page for Belmont is that they are 32nd in the nation in scoring. They are also 6th in eFG% (effective FG%). That is 6th nationally. Of course, the Hoos have already faced two teams ranked higher than that, Duke and Notre Dame. Like those two, Belmont can flat out shoot the rock. Three Bruins have attempted more than 100 treys this year, and all three shoot it at greater than 38%. One of those 3 is former Wahoo Taylor Barnette. Barnette didn't play a whole lot as a freshman for the Hoos in 2013, but he did shoot 19/44 (43%) from downtown. Much of that was garbage time minutes.
For Belmont, Barnette doesn't play garbage time. He starts, and plays nearly 30 minutes per game. He's averaging nearly 11 points per game, and shooting 79/199 from downtown (38%). He's third on the team in scoring, 4th in minutes played, and...actually that's it because he doesn't do much else other than shoot. Barnette hit a game winning 3 pointer in the OVC Tournament Final with about 3 seconds left to secure a 1 point win. Also, don't forget that Barnette is left-handed (well, hopefully, the Hoos don't forget).
Beyond Barnette, the Bruins have one of the top backcourts among all mid-majors. The main ball handler is PG Reece Chamberlain, who is pretty much a pure pass-first PG. He is 34th in nation in assist rate, and doesn't shoot from outside very much. He is still a good shooter, at 34% from downtown. Next to him is Belmont's leading scorer, Craig Bradshaw. Another good shooter, Bradshaw actually leads the team at 42% from behind the arc. He is also a slasher who can get to the rim and draw fouls. And at 6'3" and 210 pounds, he has the size to take contact and still finish. He's one of the most ball-dominant players in the country, taking over 30% of the team's shots, but also posting a 23% assist rate. Bradshaw is also a decent defender.
Belmont's 2nd leading scorer is Evan Bradds. Bradds is a "big man" who is among the nations leaders in eFG% and TS% (True Shooting %). Bradds has a knack for getting to the line, and is also shooting about 70% from the field. While Bradds is capable of knocking down the outside shot (5/12 from 3), he's more of an interior player. He can get to the rim, he can score in transition and he's a decent offensive rebounder (at least by Belmont standards). The problem, for Bradds, is that his interior scoring is going to be tough to come by against the bigger Cavs and the Pack Line Defense. Bradds isn't used to being guarded by a guy with Darion Atkin's size and quickness. At just 205 pounds, he's going to be at a sizable strength disadvantage. The Bruins other big man is freshman Amanza Egekeze, who can also hit the outside jumper, but is still developing his overall offensive game. Though a bit foul prone, Egekeze is easily the Bruins top defender.
That last statement isn't really saying a whole lot. Belmont doesn't play a whole lot of defense. They are 259th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and only 2 NCAA tournament teams are worse than that. Belmont plays at a fast pace, and wants to get the ball back. They shoot a ton of 3 pointers, so they hope to hit enough 3s to make up for their opposition's 2s. They will gamble for turnovers, and they don't really mind giving up an easy basket, because it gets them the ball back. The problem with this idea is that they aren't all that good at creating turnovers. Compare them to VCU, another fast-paced team that wants to run and gun and shoot 3s. VCU opponents have a 24% turnover rate, while Belmont opponents have just under a 19% turnover rate.
Belmont is 4th in the nation in most 3s (as a proportion of total shots), with over 40% of their shots coming from behind the arc. The Hoos are generally very good in transition defense, but this is a different type of transition offense. Rather than attack the rim for easy baskets, Belmont's guards will often penetrate and then kick back to trailers for open 3s. The Hoos will have to be very quick to find their man in transition and not allow the open treys. As we've seen in the past, the Hoos have struggled against teams with "stretch 4s" (big men who can step outside and shoot the 3). Belmont has several of these guys, including Egekeze. Nick Smith , at 6'8" has taken 138 treys on the season despite averaging just 15 minutes per game, and he's made almost 39% of them. The Hoos big men are going to have to play more perimeter defense than they are used to.
Not surprisingly for a team with a 6'7" center, Belmont isn't a very good rebounding team. Belmont doesn't get very many offensive rebounds, and gives up quite a few. They are also somewhat foul prone, especially on the interior, where they are almost always giving up size.
(Note: You may notice a discrepancy between the official season stats and the stats noted here. The difference is that Belmont played one game against DII Trevecca Nazarene, and those stats won't count in our analysis. We get most of our stats from KenPom.)
Offensively, the Hoos need to get the ball inside to Anthony Gill/Darion Atkins/Mike Tobey on every possession. The advantage that the trio has on the inside is glaring in this matchup, and there is simply no reason not to use it. The Hoos defense is a more interesting question. Is Justin Anderson healthy? Is he ready to play 25+ minutes and guard a very good perimeter scorer? If he is, then he is the perfect antidote to Bradshaw. If Justin isn't ready, then Brogdon guards Bradshaw. That means Taylor Barnette likely has Evan Nolte watching him. Nolte, though a solid defender, simply isn't quick enough to chase Barnette around for 40 minutes. Belmont will run Barnette off all different types of screens, trying to get him open for 3s. If this is the case, we may see a bigger dose of Marial Shayok, because his quickness gives him an advantage over Nolte, and his length should bother Barnette.
The Hoos ability to slow down the pace and play in the half-court should really bode well for this matchup. This season especially, the Hoos have had a great deal of success slowing down the faster teams on their schedule. The fastest paced game the Hoos played all year was their last game, the ACC Tournament loss to UNC, which was 67 possessions. Some of that was due to the Hoos poor play early on, which allowed UNC to get out in transition. Another large part of it was the Hoos attempt to catch up late in the game. They simply didn't have the luxury of being patient. If the Hoos show up early, and play a smart, sound game, they shouldn't have that problem in this matchup.
If Justin plays, and plays well, this game should be a walk in the park. The Bruins aren't used to a team with the length of the Hoos. Guys like Barnette and even Bradshaw are going to have trouble getting open looks with 6'5" and 6'6" guys guarding them. And the Hoos should dominate inside. However, if Justin isn't effective, the the Hoos will be down a major piece of their perimeter defense, which could be a problem against such a good perimeter team.