NASHVILLE — Year after year, you can find Belmont right at the top of the Atlantic Sun Conference basketball standings. And you always hear the same reasons why.
“They’re very well-coached and very efficient,” says Adam Sollazzo, East Tennessee State’s senior point guard. “They have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things — a bunch of stars, not just two or three. And they play really well at both ends.”
The Bruins are again in prime position for an NCAA tournament berth.
They’re tied for the A-Sun lead with Mercer, at 12-2, with just four regular-season games left. (Both teams are 20-7 overall; they’ll meet in the regular-season finale Feb. 25 in Macon.) And they’ve won seven in a row as the Bucs venture to the Curb Event Center tonight.
It may be the last game for awhile between teams that have combined for the last six conference crowns. Belmont, the defending and four-time champ, is leaving at the end of the school year to join the Ohio Valley Conference.
ETSU coach Murry Bartow certainly knows the caliber of program his counterpart Rick Byrd has built over the last quarter-century. The Bucs have won only three of the 16 matchups with the Bruins since they joined the A-Sun.
“If you looked at our conference schedule before the year started and asked which would be the toughest game of all, it would be the one at Belmont,” said Bartow. “Obviously, if you win that game it’s gonna be a huge boost, especially now with the way they’re rolling.
“They’ve won seven in a row, and every game has been by double digits. There has not even been a close one.”
The first one with the Bucs wasn’t close either.
With only a game separating them in the standings, and both teams coming off losses, the Bruins held the Bucs to 12 points in the first half on their way to an 82-70 victory in the Dome.
Now the Bucs are five games behind, tied for fifth, and trying to rebound from another demoralizing home loss. Jacksonville, a team that was 5-20 and likely won’t even qualify for the league tournament, beat them 61-55 on Monday night.
Once again, the ETSU offense bogged down for long stretches.
“We’re a momentum team,” said Sollazzo. “If we get stuff going early, we’re hard to stop. Some nights we just seem to get stuck on a number. That’s been a problem all season.”
Belmont has had no such problems.
The Bruins average 82.4 points per game — eight more than anybody else in the A-Sun and 15 more than the Bucs. They’re winning by an average of 13.9. They shoot 48 percent from the field and 74 percent from the foul line. And they share the wealth.
Byrd plays nine men at least 10 minutes per game; three of them are seniors. Only Drew Hanlen plays as many as 30 minutes.
The Bruins’ top scorer, junior guard Kerron Johnson, averages 13.6 points per game. Four others are also in double figures, and another is at 9.6.
Fresh legs on the floor have a way of wearing opponents down, especially opponents with very thin benches, like ETSU. The Bucs are near the bottom in most of the offensive stats.
The challenge in an apparent mismatch like tonight’s game in the Curb Center stirs competitors, says Sollazzo.
“As a senior, I’m excited about it,” he said. “That’s where you see who the true players are. If you want to make your reputation, that’s the kind of place where you should be at your best.”