9:10 PM EST, TruTV – Line: Belmont -3, Over/Under: 155.5
The 2019 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament kicks off tonight in Dayton, Ohio, in a First Four clash between Eleven Seeds, the Temple Owls and the Belmont Bruins with the winner headed to Jacksonville to battle the Six Seed Maryland Terrapins on Thursday. No matter the outcome of this contest, it will be bitter sweet for Temple (23-9, 13-5 in AAC), who with their next defeat will be saying farewell to their Head Coach Fran Dunphy, who will be retiring at the end of this campaign. After thirteen largely successful years guiding the Program, Dunphy will be calling it a career with his seventeenth trip to the NCAA Tournament, tying former Owls’ Coach John Chaney for the most in Big Five History. Odds are that this one will hold a good deal of significance for the former Penn Coach, who after leading Temple to six NCAA Tournament Appearances in his first seven years on their sidelines, including two Atlantic-10 Championships and three Conference Championships, they’ve largely been absent from the postseason since joining the American Athletic Conference back in 2013-2014, advancing to the Tournament just once in the last five years. Either way, Dunphy leaves behind a 270-161 (.626) record at Temple, and in his swan song will be looking to do something that he hasn’t managed to do in his esteemed coaching career: advance to the second weekend of the Tournament. Despite suffering a bit of a lull in the middle of their conference schedule, the Owls finished the Regular Season on a high note, winning eight of their before falling in the Quarterfinals of AAC Tournament. Upon review, there is plenty to like about Temple as a potential harbinger of chaos, who possess one of the more dynamic players in the country in the form of Senior Guard Shizz Alston Jr. (19.7 PTS, 40.7% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.5 STL, 21.3 PER). Alston led the American Athletic Conference in Scoring (20.2), Free-Throw Percentage (90.7%), and Minutes per Game (37.2), while finishing second in the league in Assists (4.8). Needless to say, Dunphy relies on his veteran Guard to do quite a bit, particularly in the clutch where his particular set of skills have made this team one of the most successful in close games; Temple is a definitive 9-2 in contests decided by five points or less, and a perfect 4-0 in overtime affairs.
When we last saw the Owls, they were being bounced out of the American Athletic Tournament earlier than they would have liked, meeting defeat at the hands of Wichita State in a narrow 80-74 affair. That was the second time that these teams had met this season, with Temple escaping with an 85-81 victory over the Shockers on the road in Overtime back in early January. On that day, they managed to rally back from a 13-point Halftime deficit largely due to their ability to get to the Free-Throw Line, knocking down 17-of-28 Attempts, which while certainly a poor shooting percentage (60.7%), allowed the visiting side to gain control of the pace of play. It also allowed Dunphy’s charges to get more organized on the defensive end, where they harassed the hosts throughout the meeting, forcing Nineteen Turnovers. However, the rematch was a different story. Both teams endured a miserable shooting performance, with the Shockers netting a dismal 39.1% of their attempts from the field, while the Owls were marginally better at 39.3%. This time, it would be Wichita State who gained the advantage from the Charity Stripe, making 22-of-24 Free-Throws (91.7%) in comparison to 19-of-26 for Temple (73.1%), with the latter also failing to take care of the basketball, committing more Turnovers (15) than Assists (10). Alston led the way with Twenty Points on 7-of-18 shooting (38.9%), including 4-of-10 from beyond the arc (40.0%), but nonetheless had a large hand in their sloppy play with Four Turnovers in comparison to just Three Assists. Junior Guard Quinten Rose (16.5 PTS, 41.1% FG, 27.9% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.5 AST, 2.1 STL, 15.7 PER) added Seventeen Points on 6-of-16 shooting (37.5%), with Six Rebounds, while defensive specialist Senior Center Ernest Aflakpui (5.9 PTS, 59.6% FG, 7.0 REB, 0.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.3 BLK, 15.9 PER) put forth arguably his finest offensive showing, totaling Sixteen Points on 6-of-10 shooting with a herculean Nineteen Rebounds.
Meanwhile, many believe that Belmont’s (26-5, 16-2 in OVC) inclusion in this NCAA Tournament can be attributed to the wild run enjoyed by Loyola (Illinois) a year ago, a fellow mid-major who as an Eleven Seed advanced all the way to the Final Four. Perhaps their success has finally opened the eyes of the Selection Committee to the quality that can be found in such non-power conferences as opposed to undeserving middling outfits from the Power Five realm, which can only benefit a team such as the Bruins, who for the first time in the history of their Program are in the NCAA Tournament not as a Conference Champion, but as an At-Large Bid. In fact, they just became first At-Large Bid granted to a resident of the Ohio Valley Conference in thirty-two years. Like their opponent tonight, Belmont is led by a veteran Head Coach who is certainly no stranger to the Tournament, with Rick Byrd making his eighth appearance in the NCAAs with the Bruins, though they are returning from a four-year hiatus in which they managed to win a pair of OVC Regular Season Titles, but were held out of the Tournament due to their failure to capture their league’s Double. After suffering back-to-back losses back in early January, this group caught fire winning sixteen of their final seventeen games to close the Regular Season, before coming up short in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game. Byrd’s charges are one of the most efficient and prolific offensive teams in the country, averaging 87.4 Points (2nd Overall) on 49.9% shooting from the field (4th Overall), including 59.9% from within the arc (2nd Overall) and 37.4% beyond it (43rd Overall), while dishing out 19.9 Assists (4th Overall) in comparison to committing 11.6 Turnovers (42nd Overall). This has been a good blend of experience and youth for the Bruins, who are led by a pair of Senior Guards, Dylan Windler (21.4 PTS, 54.8% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 10.7 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.6 BLK, 30.9 PER) and Kevin McClain (16.3 PTS, 45.8% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.3 STL, 18.8 PER), and bolstered by Freshmen such as towering Center Nick Muszynski (14.9 PTS, 60.8% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 2.2 BLK, 29.5 PER) and Point Guard Grayson Murphy (9.8 PTS, 49.4% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.6 AST, 1.7 STL, 18.0 PER).
When we last saw Belmont, they advanced to the Ohio Valley Conference Final after hammering Austin Peay 83-67, only to find far more resistance from eventual OVC Tournament Champion Murray State. This particular affair saw the Bruins blow a 31-26 Halftime lead, with the Racers overwhelming them in the Second Half, outscoring them decisively 51-34 in route to a 77-65 victory. Byrd’s charges picked a bad night to put forth arguably their worst offensive showing of the season, shooting a dreadful 39.1% from the field, including 7-of-32 from downtown (21.9%). However, this was a case in which the more the aggressive team earned the favor of the officials, and the devil is certainly in the details; Belmont was obliterated on the glass 30-43, with their opponent owning a distinct 11-5 advantage in terms of Offensive Rebounds, while also taking residence from the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down 16-of-22 Free-Throws (72.7%) in comparison to 8-of-11 (72.7%) for the Bruins. Windler led the way with Seventeen Points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field (46.7%), though struggled throughout the affair from the perimeter, netting just 1-of-7 Three-Pointers (14.3%), but contributed in other ways, pulling down a dozen Rebounds and dishing out Five Assists. They really missed the presence of Muszynski, who one would have to imagine would have warded off the Paint, where the Racers did so much of their damage (Plus-16 2FG), not to mention help alleviate that rebounding margin. The young Center tweaked his ankle in the aforementioned win over Austin Peay, and due to the back-to-back nature of conference tournaments, Byrd felt it would be wiser to rest his big man in lieu of grander things. Though there was no way at the time that the veteran coach could have known that his troops would have been selected to the Big Dance despite not winning their conference, for as we outlined earlier, there isn’t much of a precedent for that happening.