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Monson: Give the Belmont March Madness bandwagon a shot

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Belmont guard Ian Clark holds up the trophy after an NCAA college basketball game against Murray State for the Ohio Valley Conference men's tournament championship Saturday, March 9, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. Belmont won in overtime, 70-68. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

BY Gordon Monson

Tribune columnist

First published Mar 19 2013 12:33PM
Updated Mar 21, 2013 11:25PM

Of all the schools to be represented by teams in the NCAA Tournament at EnergySolutions Arena over the next few days, the one that stands out is the one we know almost nothing about. That’s exactly why it stands out.

Belmont.

What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you see that name?

Waiting …

Waiting …

It has nothing to do with Secretariat.

Waiting …

Didn’t Belmont beat somebody good a few seasons back in a huge upset? Or was that Hampton … or Campbell … or Chaminade?

Either way, for all the thousands and thousands of college basketball nut jobs now descending on Salt Lake City to cheer on Gonzaga and New Mexico and Arizona, for my Snickers bars, it’s the Belmonts of the world that make the initial rounds of the tournament everything they have become. And locals here looking for a team to get behind can jump on the Belmont bandwagon.

Why not?

Well … actually there is one reason not to.

The Bruins never win. At least they haven’t in the past. They’ve been to the tournament five times since 2006, and they were blown out in four of the five. They lost to UCLA by 34 points in 2006, to Georgetown twice, by 25 in ’07 and by 15 last year, and to Wisconsin by 14 in 2011.

Maybe that’s all the more reason to jump aboard.

The one outlier was in 2008, when Belmont pushed Duke hard — and now maybe you remember this — in a 71-70 Bruin loss. Duke was a No. 2 seed that year, Belmont a 15.

At the end of that game, Belmont guard Henry Harris said: "The last two or three minutes, I was sitting there thinking, ‘We’re really in this game.’ We were so close to winning. There’s a bit of amazement in your brain, just sitting there: ‘Wow!’ "

Can anyone not love that kind of comment? Some kid who plays for a small school in a small conference in a small corner of a big world suddenly is amazed in a big way, thinking big, dreaming big. It is the magic behind the madness of the month.

In that spirit, here’s what you need to know about Belmont, off and on the court:

It is a private Christian liberal arts university that has some 6,000 students, located in Nashville, Tenn. It started as a school for women and, since inviting men and transforming from a college to a university in 1991, has become, according to the school’s website, one of the fastest growing Christian universities in the country. The school’s enrollment has more than doubled in the past 12 years.

With its home in Nashville, the school has ties to a number of country music stars, including Vince Gill, who is a friend of basketball coach Rick Byrd, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack and Brad Paisley, as well as American Idol finalist Melinda Doolittle and Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman. It owns recording studios that have been used by Dave Matthews, Bob Seger, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Roy Orbison. An annual Christmas concert at Belmont is broadcast nationwide on PBS. In addition, a presidential debate was held there in 2008.

As for sports, the school has 17 intercollegiate teams, of which basketball has been most successful. Byrd has won 10 league titles — five regular-season and five tournament — and made six postseason appearances while playing out of the Atlantic Sun Conference and now the Ohio Valley.

This season’s team, which is the 11th seed in the West, can flat-out shoot the ball. And it will have to against much bigger Arizona, the No. 6 seed. The Bruins’ tallest player is just 6-foot-7. Still, they make a ridiculous 57 percent of their 2-point tries, which is tops in the nation, and 39 percent from 3. Their leading scorer is guard Ian Clark, who averages 18 points. On defense, they rank among national leaders in steals, scrapping for 10 a game.

Basically, they’re a bunch of guards, flying around bigger opponents, collectively playing small ball for the good of the team. It’s perfect symbolism.

Byrd has said he’s surprised by how well Belmont (26-6) is playing this season. Now the rest of us might be, too.

Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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