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The CoachCal.com keys to victory: Belmont

The always dangerous Belmont Bruins travel from Nashville, Tenn., to Rupp Arena to take on the No. 19/21 Kentucky Wildcats (8-3) in the first hardwood matchup between the two schools.

Introducing the Belmont Bruins

The Coach — In his 33rd season as a head coach, the last 28 years with the Belmont Bruins, Rick Byrd is not only one of the most successful coaches in college basketball, but he is also one of the most respected. That respect was manifested after the 2013 season when Byrd was given the Bob Frederick Award for lifelong commitment to sportsmanship, ethical conduct and fair play.

The basics

What: No. 19/21 Kentucky (8-3) vs. Belmont (8-4)
When: Saturday, noon ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Belmont
Preview: Unexpected adversity has built chip on Cats’ shoulders
Video: Andrew Harrison, Cauley-Stein preview Belmont
Video: Cal’s pre-Belmont presser

After leading Belmont in its transition from NAIA to NCAA Division I in the 1997 season, Byrd’s success has been impressive, as his Bruins have won six of the last eight regular season conference titles — five in the Atlantic Sun, as well as last season’s OVC championship — and have received their conference’s automatic NCAA bid in six of the last eight years, joining Memphis and Kansas as the only schools to achieve that feat. Since the 2006 season, Byrd’s Bruins have posted a 198-79 record, a .715 winning percentage, and beaten the likes of Alabama, Missouri and Cincinnati. In 2008, in a contest that will not soon be forgotten, the No. 15 seed Bruins nearly upset No. 1 seed Duke before falling 71-70.

With 671 career victories, the reigning OVC Coach of the Year is only four wins away from matching Louisville’s Denny Crum career win total, and Byrd is one of only 11 active coaches with at least 600 wins.

The Players — The Bruins are led in scoring by 6-foot-6 junior swingman J.J. Mann, who scores 17.7 points and grabs 4.8 rebounds per game. An outstanding free-throw shooter, Mann connects on 91.1 percent of his attempts from the line (51 of 56). An important component of the Belmont offense, Mann has taken 73 more shots than any of his teammates.

TV/Radio coverage

TV: ESPNU
Radio: UK IMG
Online audio: All-access
Live stats: Gametracker
Live stream: WatchESPN
Live blog: CoachCal.com

Craig Bradshaw, a 6-3 sophomore guard is second on the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game. An outstanding perimeter shooter, Bradshaw connects on 47.5 percent of his long-range shots and 53.8 percent of his overall shots from the floor. Samford transfer Drew Windler, a 6-9 senior forward, puts up 12.3 points per game and is another highly accurate 3-point shooter, having made 28 of 50 shots from distance on the season (56.0 percent). Windler is not unfamiliar with Kentucky, having played against the Cats in 2012 while at Samford, scoring 11 points. Belmont’s best defender, 6-8 senior forward Blake Jenkins, is capable of guarding all five spots on the floor and is also one of the Bruins’ best board men, snagging 4.8 rebounds per game. Reece Chamberlain, a 6-1 junior guard who averages 10.9 points per contest, is questionable to play against UK due to a stress fracture in his right foot.

The Schedule — At 8-4 on the year, Belmont has defeated crosstown rival Lipscomb twice, 87-83 and 94-64, Indiana State, 96-95, North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 83-80 (a game in which the Bruins made 15 of 37 treys), College of Holy Cross, 81-70, Hofstra, 85-75, Brescia, 102-68, and Middle Tennessee, 70-58. Belmont’s losses have come against Richmond, 69-61, VCU, 81-68 (a loss which snapped Belmont’s 23-game home winning streak), South Dakota State, 85-72, and Denver, 90-62.

Three Keys

Dominate the boards — On the season, Belmont is 254th in the nation in offensive rebound percentage at 29.6, and 184th in defensive rebound percentage at 68.7. This presents UK with an opportunity to dominate in second-chance points and limit the Bruins to one-and-done offensive sets.

Belmont File

Record: 8-4
Head coach: Rick Byrd (579-295 at Belmont)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Bruins
Player to watch: JJ Mann (averaging  17.7 points, 4.8 rebounds)
Series history: Never met
Last meeting: First meeting

Value ball possession — In Kentucky’s last two games, the Cats have turned the ball over a total of 36 times. Wildcat turnovers are coming from every position on the floor, with the Kentucky guards accounting for 19 turnovers and the big men committing 16 — with two team turnovers — over the last two contests. If the Cats are to optimize their offensive capabilities against a team that has little difficulty scoring the basketball, valuing possession will play a key role.

Guard the perimeter — As a team, Belmont is connecting on 38.3 percent of its 3-point attempts (54th in the nation), and the Bruins’ 105 made 3-pointers on the season ranks sixth in college basketball. Furthermore, Belmont’s 49.2 percent field-goal accuracy is 28th best in the land. Obviously, the Bruins can flat-out shoot the basketball, meaning UK’s ability to play consistently tough, switching defense, something the squad has struggled with in the early going, will be tested. Hedging on screens, a bugaboo in the Cats’ loss to North Carolina, will be vitally important as Belmont will make late closers pay with its outstanding 3-point shooting, or counter with drives into the lane where the Bruins will draw the defense and kick out to the open shooter.

Key Matchup

Kentucky’s defense vs. Belmont’s patient half-court offense — Like a wolf stalking its prey, the Bruins half-court offense is patient; patient while waiting for their foe to make a mistake. That patience pays off for the Bruins in either open 3-point attempts, or virtually uncontested 2-point shots in or near the lane. Kentucky’s defense, at times dangerously effective, also tends to relax at times, allowing either open shots from the perimeter or midrange jumpers with light pressure. Against Belmont, losing defensive focus and intensity will more often than not result in a basket for the Bruins. The challenge facing UK on Saturday afternoon is to consistently defend with a purpose, while being mindful of guarding for the entirety of the 35-second shot clock.

Trends

  • James Young — Young has connected on 13 of 28 shots from beyond the arc in the last four games (46.4 percent) and has made at least two 3-pointers in seven of UK’s 11 games. He is also warming up at the free-throw line, having made 11 of 14 from the stripe over the last two contests (78.6 percent) after beginning the season 22 of 35 from the line (62.9 percent).
  • Aaron Harrison — UK’s shooting guard has been good on 17 of 20 from the line over the last five games (85.0 percent) and has been true on 25 of 42 from the field over the last four contests (59.2 percent).
  • Julius Randle — The big fella has made 14 of 18 from the stripe over the last three games (77.8 percent), but he has grabbed only 32 rebounds in the last four games (8.0 per game) after averaging 13.3 boards per contest over the first seven games of the season.
  • Alex Poythress — Against North Carolina, Poythress snagged eight rebounds — five offensive — in only 24 minutes of action.
  • Andrew Harrison — Harrison dished out a season-high seven assists against UNC. After making 82.6 percent of his shots from the free-throw line through the Cats’ first eight games, UK’s point guard has made only 17 of 28 from the stripe over the last three games (60.7 percent).
  • Willie Cauley-Stein — WCS has attempted only six shots — making five — in his last 54 minutes of play, covering two games. The shot swatter has tallied 33 blocks in the last five games (6.6 per game).

Team stats

UK Belmont
Scoring offense 80.5 80.1
Scoring defense 65.1 76.5
FG percentage 47.5 49.2
FG percentage defense 37.2 47.1
3-point percentage 32.6 38.3
3-point percentage defense 31.1 35.8
FT percentage 67.0 72.7
Rebound margin +12.4 -0.5
Steals per game 4.3 7.5
Blocks per game 7.7 2.3
Assists per game 12.5 15.8
Turnover margin -2.7 +0.8
kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency rank 5 61
Kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency rank 38 179

Individual leaders

UK Belmont
Points per game Julius Randle (17.2) JJ Mann (17.7)
Rebounds per game Julius Randle (11.4) JJ Mann, Blake Jenkins (4.8)
Field-goal percentage Willie Cauley-Stein (61.9) Evan Bradds (66.7)
3-point percentage Andrew Harrison (36.0) Drew Windler (56.0)
Free-throw percentage Aaron Harrison (78.0) Caleb Chowbay (100.0)
Assists per game Andrew Harrison (3.8) Reece Chamberlain (4.9)
Blocks per game Willie Cauley-Stein (4.4) Drew Windler (0.8)
Steals per game Willie Cauley-Stein (1.2) JJ Mann (2.5)

The Wrap-up

Tip-off for UK vs. Belmont is schedule for noon ET, with television coverage on ESPNU. And as always, stay tuned to CoachCal.com for complete pre-, in-, and postgame coverage.