After earning a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Arizona Wildcats (25-7) will travel to the nearest location for the second round. Belmont (26-6), Arizona’s opponent will be the second Bruins that the Wildcats have faced in as many games.
Belmont has been a powerhouse in the Ohio Valley Conference throughout the year, losing just two conference games. Before that, it boosted its RPI and strength of schedule with a win at Stanford, while taking losses at Virginia Commonwealth and Kansas.
One of the Bruins strengths is on the offensive side of the ball. Senior guard Ian Clark is among the top shooters in the nation and has helped Belmont lead the country in two-point shooting.
The Bruins also shoot very effectively from beyond the arc, one of the areas that the Wildcats have had trouble defending this season.
"We have to be aggressive on defense,” Arizona forward Solomon Hill said. “Going back to the Colorado game, our team did a good job to throw them off when they shot beyond the line.
“That's one thing that we learned from that game as well is keeping teams off the free-throw line. Belmont is a team that you don't want to give possession to at the free-throw line because they knock them down at a high percentage and that can be the difference like the UCLA game."
Clark is going to be one of the one of the main focuses of the Wildcats, likely drawing the defensive attention of Nick Johnson. He is a senior leader and averages 18.1 points per game and hits just more than three long balls a game, shooting 46-percent on them. If Arizona can slow him down, the Bruins will have to look elsewhere for a large chunk of their scoring.
“You never know, you look at the numbers from the other team and their leading scorers, they have a 46% three-point shooter and a 90% free-throw shooter [Ian Clark],” Hill said.
“I'm guessing he's a player that can get going anywhere he plays. Their team is a heavy three-point shooting team and you never want to let them weigh on that option and hope that they miss shots.”
Kerron Johnson will join Clark in the backcourt, as the 6-foot-1 senior point guard leads the team in assists with 155 on the year. While he attempts to get his teammates involved in the game, Johnson also finds ways to score himself, averaging 13.7 points per contest, the second highest total on the team.
The final senior in the starting lineup will be Trevor Noack. The 6-foot-7 forward is the tallest starter for the Bruins and is also the team’s third leading scorer with 12.5 points each time out. Noack leads Belmont in rebounding, grabbing five and a half each night, which is important as the team as a whole is not a great rebounding team.
J.J. Mann and Blake Jenkins are two juniors that round out the starting five. Mann, a 6-foot-6 forward, has been a player that started the season slow, but has grown into his role and helped the Bruins excel. Over the course of the year, he is averaging ten points a game, but scored two more in the last sixteen games. Mann is also averaging 4.7 rebounds per night with a team-high 61 steals on the year.
Jenkins, a redshirt junior, has plenty of experience under his belt, but may be the least likely to hurt Arizona on offense. Standing at 6-foot-7, he grabs 4.7 rebounds per game, but scores just fewer than ten points a game.
Jenkins could become a problem defensively, as he leads Belmont with 38 blocks, although most of those came against smaller opponents.
Sophomore guard Reece Chamberlain should be one of the first Bruins off the bench on Thursday. He has seen more playing time in the second half of the season, accumulating more than half of his 69 assists in conference play. The 6-foot-1 guard doesn’t do much scoring, putting up just four points per contest.
The final key player for Belmont is Brandon Baker. Seeing fourteen minutes of playing time each game, the 6-foot-6 forward has been interchangeable at many positions throughout the season. The redshirt senior has done a little bit of everything for the Bruins, scoring 3.4 points and grabbing three rebounds per game.