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NCAA tournament: University of Arizona has plenty of respect for Belmont program

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 10:56 a.m. MDT

Arizona head coach Sean Miller speaks during a news conference before practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont Thursday.  (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press) Arizona head coach Sean Miller speaks during a news conference before practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont Thursday. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — If you don't know a lot about the Belmont Bruins' basketball program, you're certainly not alone.

For the record, the university is located in Nashville, Tenn. — which, let's face it, is much better known for its country music than its college basketball.

And while the Bruins come into this year's NCAA tournament as an unranked, unheralded, 11th-seeded ballclub that's a bit of an unknown in these parts, Arizona coach Sean Miller knows very well who they are as he prepares his team for today's West Regional matchup at EnergySolutions Arena (approximately 5:20 p.m., TNT).

"They have a really, really good backcourt, and it's going to be a great test of our defense," Miller said of Belmont's senior guardline duo of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson.

"Part of what makes Clark so good is they have an excellent point guard in Johnson and, when you look at his free-throw attempts, how he runs the show, the big plays he makes ... they have a dynamic backcourt. I believe that's one of several keys to what makes them such a great team."

Arizona's Nick Johnson goes to the basket during practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont Thursday.  (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press) Arizona's Nick Johnson goes to the basket during practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont Thursday. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

Clark, the Ohio Valley Conference co-Player of the Year as well as its defensive player of the year, averaged 18.1 points per game while shooting 54 percent from the field, 46.3 percent from 3-point range and 84 percent from the foul line. Johnson added 13.7 points, 4.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds a game for the Bruins (26-6).

"If you look at his efficiency," Miller said, marveling at Clark, "his ability to score — I can't believe the field goal percentage he shoots and for taking as many 3-point shots that he takes (99 of 214).

"... They're a great offensive team — period. We're going to need a great defensive performance — period. ... We're going to have to play one heck of a game (today) for us to have a chance to advance. We know that."

Of course, keep in mind that Belmont has never won an NCAA tourney game before (0-5), and while the Bruins are going to the NCAA's Big Dance for the third straight year, they will certainly have their hands full with a tall and talented Arizona team, too.

Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski goes to the basket during practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont Thursday.  (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press) Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski goes to the basket during practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont Thursday. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

After all, while Belmont has just one player in its rotation who stands over 6-foot-7, the sixth-seeded Wildcats (25-7) have four players over 6-10 who contribute to their success.

"It's just going to be a battle," admitted 6-foot-7 Belmont senior forward Trevor Noack. "You've got to push on them as much as you can and not let 'em get position. That's a big thing. If they get position, then there is not a whole lot you can do."

Sure, the height disadvantage is an issue, but Clark, Belmont's team MVP, insisted he and his teammates are ready for the challenge.

"We've never been the biggest team on the court," he said. "We have learned how to prepare for that and get over that obstacle, and we will be able to do that (today)."

Belmont's colorful coach, Rick Byrd, feels the same way.

Arizona's Solomon Hill shoots during practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont on Thursday.  (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press) Arizona's Solomon Hill shoots during practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Arizona is scheduled to play Belmont on Thursday. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

"You know, this team has found a way," he said, "even when we have played big people, and there are different ways to do that. ... You can let 'em throw it in there and dig on the post and make a guy wonder whether you're going to double him. You can double him immediately. We'll probably mix up a lot of that kind of stuff."

So, will today's duel come down to Belmont's impressive 3-point shooting versus Arizona's intimidating size advantage?

"I would much rather we play great and they play bad," Byrd said. "I think it comes down to that more than anything."

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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