Following a disappointing loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament, Maryland basketball heads to Jacksonville, Florida, to take on Belmont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In the 69-61 loss to the Huskers, the Terps trailed by as many as 14 and were never able to truly threaten Nebraska. Bruno Fernando had just three points and was bothered by constant double teams, and Anthony Cowan Jr. scored just one point in the first 30 minutes before heating up late to score a team-high 18. Maryland never got going against the Huskers’ zone, which they stayed in even after double-teaming Fernando. The 6’10 sophomore has gotten better at passing out of the double team this season, but by the end of the game was hesitant to even dribble.
The Bruins are coming off an 81-70 win over Temple in the First Four for their first career NCAA Tournament win. Belmont jumped ahead by 11 early in the second half, but Temple went on a 19-4 run and led 52-47 with 11:26 remaining. The Bruins responded with nine straight points and never trailed again.
The Bruins won a share of the Ohio Valley regular season title, but fell to co-champion Murray State in the conference tournament final. The loss put Belmont on the bubble, and the committee awarded the Bruins an at-large bid, making the OVC a multi-bid league for the first time.
The game is scheduled to tip off approximately 3:10 p.m. ET, and will be broadcast on TruTv.
Belmont Bruins (27-5, 16-2 Ohio Valley)
2017-18 record: 24-9, 15-3
Head coach Rick Byrd has won 805 games in his 38-year career, and has been at the helm at Belmont for the last 33 years. He helped them transition from an NAIA school to a Division I independent, and has turned the Bruins into a mid-major power in both the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley, respectively. Under Byrd, Belmont has made eight NCAA Tournaments and finished in the top three of its conference each of the last 17 years.
Players to know
Dylan Windler, senior, guard, 6’8/200, No. 3. A two-time All-OVC selection, Windler averages a team-high 20.8 points and 10.8 rebounds a game while shooting at a nearly 54 percent clip from the field and 42 percent from beyond the arc. He’s the best player in the Ohio Valley not named Ja Morant.
Kevin McClain, senior, guard, 6’3/190, No. 11. Another first team All-OVC selection, McClain has averaged 16.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and four assists per game. With Windler having an off night against the Owls, he carried Belmont’s offense with a game-high 29 points.
Nick Muszynski, redshirt freshman, center, 6’11/235, No. 33. Like Windler and McClain, Muszynski was also a first team all-OVC selection and was named the OVC freshman of the year after averaging 14.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. He’s battling an ankle injury, and after missing the OVC title game against Murray St., returned made a major impact against Temple. The Owls had no answer for Muszynski, who scored 16 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
Outside of the top three, redshirt freshman guard Grayson Murphy averages 9.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and a team-high 6.6 assists per game. Belmont also has four other players who average at least 12 minutes per game, with all of them scoring between four and seven points per game.
Offensive efficiency. Belmont likes to push the tempo, doesn’t turn the ball over, and is No. 19 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency. The Bruins rank third in the country in effective field goal percentage, second in two-point percentage and seventh in assist-to-field-goal ratio.
Forcing turnovers. Belmont forces turnovers on just 16.3 percent of opponent’s possessions, which is 307th in Division I. Maryland has struggled with ball security at times this year, and could need as many extra possessions as possible if the Bruins get off to a fast start.
Three things to watch
1. How does Maryland start? The Terps have shaken off numerous slow starts this season, but may not be able to do the same against an efficient Belmont team. Maryland started slow against Nebraska and never recovered, and doing the same against the Bruins could give them the confidence to pull off the upset.
2. Can Maryland’s stars perform on the big stage? Minutes after the bracket was announced, Anthony Cowan told the media the only thing he was focusing on was winning a postseason game, which he hasn’t done yet. A big reason the Terps struggled against Nebraska was an inconsistent performance by Cowan and a disappearing act from Fernando. With Windler likely primed for a big game after scoring just five points against Temple, Maryland will need someone to answer.
3. Does the First Four trend continue? Since the play-in games debuted in 2011, a team from the First Four has won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Teams have pulled off upsets in multiple ways, and with Maryland teetering and Belmont being solid all year, the Bruins have become a popular upset pick.
Maryland looks like the more talented and athletic team, but Belmont has the look of a Cinderella. The Bruins have a savvy point guard, two guards that can score and a big man who knows how to finish around the rim. That, combined with the Terps’ loss against Nebraska and recent postseason struggles, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. I see this as a close game throughout, with seniors Windler and McClain making enough plays down the stretch to pull off the upset.
Me: Belmont 76, Maryland 70
KenPom: Maryland 76, Belmont 72