Three Thoughts: Belmont 73, Fairfield 61

Defense wins championships. Maybe. Sometimes. But not at Belmont, who has won six championships in the last nine seasons (five Atlantic Sun, and one in the OVC where it currently resides) largely because it can shoot the ball better than you.

The Bruins have ranked no lower than 52nd nationally in offensive efficiency in any of the last four seasons, and not coincidentally are one of only six Division I programs to win 26 games or more in each of those (Duke, Florida, Syracuse, VCU, and Wichita St. the others).

And Belmont doesn’t do it with traditional post players, everyone in their lineup can shoot. This is a young Bruin team, and yet 6’10” freshman center Tyler Hadden can shoot off pick-and-pops and fellow freshmen Evan Bradds and Amanze Egekeze have no trouble hitting jump shots consistently.

Yet Belmont came into Webster Bank Arena losers of three straight Saturday afternoon, including a 27-point loss at VCU on Tuesday. All three, however, were without senior and leading scorer Craig Bradshaw. He returned healthy Saturday, but didn’t score in the first half, and the Bruins led only 29-27 at the break. They made some adjustments, the most glaring is pushing tempo and getting to the basket more, and scored 44 points on 33 possessions (1.33) against a pretty good Fairfield defense to cruise to a 73-61 victory and end the Stags’ two-game win streak

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on


Here are my thoughts:

1. Sydney Johnson might have some tough personnel decisions – Coleman Johnson has been suspended for a violation of athletic department rules, which will last at least until Jan. 1 when his situation will be re-evaluated. It gave increased minutes to freshman Kevin Degnan, who scored 12 points and had six rebounds in 24 minutes even stepping out to hit a three-pointer. Fellow freshman Tyler Nelson scored 14 points in 30 minutes. But does the increased offense make the Stags suffer at the other end? Or, on this day, was Belmont just too good?.

“We’ve been a pretty tough team defensively,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “That’s something that we hang our hat on, but I’ll tell you, they had about six guys make three or more shots away from the rim. They really shoot it well. They spread it out. They share it. They made it hard on us. There were some defensive opportunities we would like back, some charges we didn’t take, but they can shoot.”

2. Belmont is a joy to watch –  This was Rick Byrd’s 697th victory (605 at Belmont), and their style – especially in a season where we’ve seen a ton of defensive struggles here in the Northeast – was a nice change of pace. As Johnson pointed out, once they started hitting shots, they are tough to slow down. Murray St. (winners of the CIT last season) is the preseason OVC champ, and defending champ Eastern Kentucky just bludgeoned Miami Friday night, but the Bruins and Byrd will likely be there in the end, chasing the one thing that has escaped him as he took Belmont from NAIA all the way to NCAA Division I, an NCAA Tournament victory.

“We’re a little bit different team this year, and I’m just going to have to find a way to get the best shots we can like always,” Byrd said. “We are pretty young, so hopefully that bodes well going forward and we’ll keep getting better.”

3. Fairfield probably didn’t need that break – Obviously, there are finals and Christmas, which are more important things than basketball (I think), but the Stags were rolling at 2-0 in the MAAC, but hadn’t played in 13 days before Saturday, and now play Albany Monday before taking on Loyola (Md.) in Brooklyn next week, and having another few days off before getting back into MAAC play against Siena on Jan. 2.

“Quite honestly, we had four guys in double figures and that’s what I’ve been telling the guys all year we have to get to, so that’s a positive,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, they really torched us today. I probably want to score 65 to 70 points at minimum, but I thought we played well enough offensively to win the game. Defensively, they just hurt us.”

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