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Can Belmont win a NCAA Tournament game?

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 3/19/2019 Mike Organ
a man holding a football ball: Legendary Belmont basketball coach Rick Byrd couches his team as they practice at the Curb Center at Belmont. Byrd could win his 800th win on Thursday. Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. © Larry McCormack / The Tennessean Legendary Belmont basketball coach Rick Byrd couches his team as they practice at the Curb Center at Belmont. Byrd could win his 800th win on Thursday. Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.

Belmont is back in the NCAA Tournament. Now what?

Getting into the field of 68 remains a huge accomplishment for the Bruins. But getting in on an at-large bid brings with it a completely different feel along with added expectations.

"That's what I'm most nervous about now, is living up to this choice (by the NCAA Tournament selection committee)," coach Rick Byrd said.

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Belmont (26-5) plays Temple (23-9) at 8:10 p.m. Tuesday (TruTV) in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will play No. 6 seed Maryland in the East Region.

The selection committee elected to put Belmont in the tournament this year rather than being required to do so as it had been the seven times in the past when the Bruins earned automatic berths by winning conference tournaments. 

The Bruins never have won an NCAA Tournament game. The closest they came was in 2008 when they gave Duke a scare before losing 71-70.

Belmont also played well against Virginia the last time it was in the NCAA Tournament in 2015. The Bruins cut a 14-point deficit in the second half to two with 4:30 minutes remaining before falling 79-67.

Better equipped

On several occasions Byrd has said this team is one of the very best he has coached in his 33 years at Belmont.

Dylan Windler, a 6-foot-8 forward, is an NBA prospect. Fellow senior Kevin McClain, a guard, and freshman center Nick Muszynski joined Windler on the All-OVC first team

Muszynski missed the OVC tournament championship game against Murray State with an ankle injury but Byrd said Monday he will play Tuesday.

Freshman point guard Grayson Murphy from Independence is 12th nationally in assists per game (6.6).

"Even the team that played Duke to a point, that team didn't have the capability this team does to compete with those kind of athletes and skill players that we're going to have to face in this tournament," Byrd said. "I think we are more ready in that regard."

The only component this team lacks is a history in the NCAA Tournament.

"We don't have as much experience as that (2008) team had in playing in the NCAA Tournament; we have none," Byrd said. "But I've seen teams win first-round games that have never been there before, and that's what we will try to do." 

Peaking down the stretch

The selection committee has made it clear in the past it favors teams that are playing well heading into the tournament, and Belmont fits that template.

The Bruins struggled at the start of the Ohio Valley Conference season when they lost twice to Jacksonville State over a two-week span. 

The second loss came on Jan. 17. It was only a brief slum.

Belmont didn't lose again until March 9 in the conference tournament championship.

"The fact that we won 14 straight at the end of the year helped," Byrd said. "They always talk about picking teams based on how they are playing late in the season. We certainly played well. Not only did we win those games, (but) we won all but one of them by double-figures."

Belmont's average margin of victory during the 14-game win streak was 20 points.

The past matters

After going to the NCAA Tournament seven times in 10 seasons, Belmont gained a reputation as one of the nation's top mid-major programs.

The Bruins also have been in the National Invitation Tournament four times. They advanced to the quarterfinals in 2014 and second round in 2017.

That past success also could have played a role in Belmont earning the at-large bid.

"They're supposed to look at each team separately on its own merits for each year, and I've got to trust that's what they tried to do," Byrd said. "And if there was any part of the consistency of our program or any other part of the program that swung things our way, that's great."

Temple's tournament history

Like Belmont, Temple is led by a veteran coach in Fran Dunphy, 70.

This game could be Dunphy's last. 

He is in his 13th season with the Owls and already has announced his retirement at the end of the season.

Dunphy replaced John Chaney in 2006. 

Temple is in the NCAA Tournament for the 33rd time. The Owls' last appearance came in 2016 when they lost to Iowa 72-70 in overtime.

Belmont's NCAA NET ranking is 48th. Temple is 56th.

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Reach Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Can Belmont win a NCAA Tournament game?

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