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January 20, 2011
Around the Rim
Balanced Belmont

by John Perrotto

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Take a look at the Belmont stat sheet, those with the conventional measures of basketball production, and nothing jumps off the page from an individual standpoint. No Bruins player is averaging more than 12.1 points or 5.7 rebounds a game.

Yet there is another low total that stands out. No one is averaging more 23.8 minutes. That, veteran Belmont coach Rick Byrd says, is why his team has quietly put together one of the best records in the nation as the Bruins are 16-3 overall and 8-0 in the Atlantic Sun, where they are obliterating the competition.

"What has happened is that our players understand that team statistics are more important than the individual statistics and the most important statistic is wins," Byrd said. "We had a lot of experience coming back and a lot of depth, and we wanted to use that to our advantage this season. We've asked our guys to sacrifice some playing time for the good of the team and it really helped that we had success early so they understood that we can be successful."

Eleven Bruins are averaging double-digit minutes and that has enabled them to play suffocating defense for 40 minutes a game. Belmont is 29th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.8), third in turnover percentage (27.6), ninth in steal percentage (13.4) and 41st in effective field-goal percentage (44.9).

"We have the ability to play as hard as possible for longer stretches of time because we are able to substitute so much and always have fresh players on the court," Byrd said. "It's really paid off on the defensive end. You don't often see teams who force a high percentage of turnovers also hold teams to a low shooting percentage but we've been able to do it by rotating some players in and out of the game."

That has enabled Belmont to play fast as its average of 70.7 possessions per game is 49th nationally. While all the changing on the fly may be damaging some the Bruins' conventional stats, they have a pair of tempo-free stars in junior forward Scott Saunders and sophomore guard Kerron Johnson.

Saunders leads the A-Sun with a 121.5 Offensive Rating and 22.9 defensive rebounding percentage, is third with a 13.4 offensive rebounding percentage and fifth with a 7.04 block percentage. His Offensive Rating is 21st nationally among players who have been part of at least 24 percent of their team's possessions used.

Johnson, meanwhile, tops the conference in steal percentage with a 4.94 mark, is ninth in Offensive Rating (98.4) and 10th in assist rate (24.2). Junior guard Drew Hanlen is second with a 32.8 assists rate and junior forward Mick Hedgepath is fifth in offensive rebounding percentage (11.9) and seventh in defensive rebounding percentage (19.3).

The one knock against Belmont is that it has played the 36th-easiest schedule in the nation, according to kenpom.com. However, the Bruins' three losses have all been by single digits to SEC team as they were beaten by one and nine points by Tennessee and nine by Vanderbilt.

In conference play, Belmont has been overwhelming as it has won each game by at least 17 points and its average margin of victory is 29. The Bruins figure to add to those gaudy totals Friday night when they visit South Carolina-Upstate (2-15, 1-6).

Winning is nothing new for Byrd and Belmont, even if the school is noted more for producing country-western stars like Vince Gill, who can usually be found sitting behind the bench during home games at the Curb Event Center, than NBA players. Since joining the A-Sun in 2002, Belmont has also produced eight Academic All-Americans, more than any other program in the nation.

Byrd has won 596 games in his career and been at Belmont for 25 years, leading a program from the NAIA to Division I while resisting overtures from bigger schools because he loves living in Nashville and his native Tennessee. Even though Byrd led the Bruins to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2006-08, he admits this season has been something special so far.

"I thought we'd be good but I didn't expect us to be standing where we are at this point of the season with our only losses to SEC schools," Byrd said. "It's really been a matter of everyone sacrifice for the good of the team. It's been fun to watch and be a part of to this point."

Thomas Makes HIs Point

Losing point guard Abdul Gaddy to season-ending knee surgery earlier this month could have been devastating to Washington. Instead, the Huskies have not only survived without Gaddy but are thriving as they have gone 3-1.

Isaiah Thomas has moved to the point from shooting guard and done an outstanding job by averaging 20.0 points and 9.3 assists a game in the four games. It is impressive work for the junior, who has never exactly been a pass-first guy and is averaging a team-high 16.5 points and 5.4 assists this season.

"People would say Isaiah can't do this thing or that thing but I've always said he's a guard who can do everything," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. He's shown he can score and now he's showing he can be a playmaker and a floor general. Could he have done this as a freshman? Probably not as well but now he can see the floor in addition to scoring the basketball. I think he's as complete a guard as there is around. What he's doing really doing doesn't surprise me."

Romar also has watched Thomas turn into a leader, even if he has been known to rub people wrong with a confidence that borders on cockiness.

"His ability to lead gives you a chance to win any game you're in," Romar said. "He says some things that come off as arrogance but that's not the case. He just has a strong, strong belief his team can win and that really rubs off on the rest of the team."

Thomas and Washington (13-4, 5-1) have a big challenge tonight as they host Arizona (15-3, 4-1) in a Pac-10 showdown. The Huskies lead the conference by a half-game over the Wildcats.

It also is a matchup of arguably the two best players in the Pac-10 as, among players who have been part of at least 24 percent of their team's possessions, Arizona forward Derrick Williams leads the nation with a 131.5 Offensive Rating while Thomas is second in the conference with a 118.3 mark. Thomas' 29.2 assist rate is second in the Pac-10.

"Isaiah Thomas is a great guard," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "He's every bit as valuable to Washington as Derrick is to us."

Pitt Continues to Hold Syracuse's Number

Syracuse is undoubtedly one of the premier programs in the country as coach Jim Boeheim has won 846 games in 35 seasons. Yet it seems the Orange can never find an answer when it comes to beating Pittsburgh.

The Panthers burst to a 19-0 and downed Syracuse 74-66 on Monday night, handing the Orange their first loss of the season after 18 victories while improving to 18-1 and 6-0 in the Big East. Pitt has won five straight games against Syracuse and eight of the last nine meetings in part because the Panthers always seem to find weaknesses in Boeheim's famed 2-3 zone.

After absorbing so many defeats at the hands of Pitt, Boeheim knows the Panthers well. He believes this year's edition could finally get over the hump and get to the Final Four, something Pitt hasn't done since 1941--when the NCAA Tournament was just an eight-team event.

"Pitt is a tremendous basketball team," Boeheim said. "To me, it's probably one of the best if not the best Pitt team we have played. They have a lot of weapons--great senior leadership and strong juniors. When you start three seniors and two juniors, that's a lot of experience and good players."

What sets Pitt apart this season is it offense. Long considered a blue-collar team under coach Jamie Dixon, the Panthers lead the nation with a 124.9 adjusted offensive efficiency. They also have five players who rank among the nation's top 341 in Offensive Rating in Ashton Gibbs (126.3), Brad Wannamaker (122.7), Gilbert Brown (121.2), Gary McGhee (114.4) and Travon Woodall (113.0).

"I just think they have a good team overall, top to bottom," Boeheim said. "Their past teams these last few years were very good teams. I think this team shoots better and more consistently. They're still tough defensively and are rebounding the basketball as good as they have been."

Pitt should get a breather Saturday afternoon when it visits DePaul (6-12, 0-6).

Jenkings Drawing NBA Attention

Hofstra's Charles Jenkins has the look of a first-round draft pick--in the NFL. Yet the tight end-like senior guard, who is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is beginning to get mentioned as a possible first-round selection in the NBA Draft.

Jenkins is certainly putting up the numbers of a first-rounder as he is averaging 23.2 points and 4.7 assists a game for the Pride. He is also all over the national leaderboard in tempo-free statistics as he ranks eighth in true shooting percentage (69.0), 18th in Offensive Rating (131.1), 22nd in effective field-goal percentage (64.2) and 68th in assist rate (31.3).

"He's like the movie Unstoppable," Old Dominion guard Kent Bazemore said. "He gets going full speed and he can change direction so quick. He's a heckuva player."

Jenkins' best game this season came in an overtime victory at Binghamton on Dec. 8 when he scored 40 points and dished out six assists in 45 minutes. He made quite an impression on Bearcats coach Mark Macon, who was an All-American at Temple.

"He just took the game over," Macon said. "He made all the big plays."

Jenkins followed that with 32 points and six points in 40 minutes in a loss at Florida Atlantic three days later. "Jenkins is the real deal," Florida Atlantic coach Mike Jarvis said. "He could start for any team in the country. I'm so glad I don't have to coach against him again this year. He is a special, special player." Jenkins is a big reason why Hofstra (12-6, 6-1) is tied for the Colonial Athletic Association lead with Virginia Commonwealth going into Saturday's game at William & Mary (6-12, 2-5).

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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