SALT LAKE CITY — Belmont coach Rick Byrd hated the 3-pointer when it was first approved in college basketball, and insisted he would have voted against it had he had the option 27 years ago.
Now it’s the main reason his 11th-seeded Bruins are the trendy pick to knock off sixth-seeded Arizona when they open play Thursday in the NCAA tournament’s West region.
Senior guard Ian Clark leads the nation in 3-point shooting at better than 46 percent, hitting 9 of 11 once in a game this season.
Byrd isn’t great at math but he knows that adds up to a lot of scoring.
“I didn’t get a chance to agree or disagree,” Byrd quipped of the rule change in his first year at Belmont. “I just thought it’s been a good game for a long time. ... But I think it’s made the game more interesting and exciting.”
That means the 21st-ranked Wildcats will have to step up their perimeter defense if they don’t want to be one-and-done.
But it’s not just 3-pointers, Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Belmont gets to the line frequently, with senior guard Kerron Johnson leading the way with 210 free throw attempts.
As a team the Bruins are shooting nearly 50 percent overall, with Clark hitting 54 percent of his shots, Trevor Noack shooting 49 percent and Johnson 46 percent.
“That’s what’s scary about them,” Miller said of a team that won the Ohio Valley Conference. “I would say they’re a great offensive team, period.”
Miller said Clark is like a combination of UCLA’s Jordan Adams and Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie — two players who have had big games against the Wildcats.
“Part of what makes Clark so good is ... they have a dynamic backcourt (with Johnson),” Miller said.
What the Bruins don’t have is size, with no starters taller than 6-foot-7
Arizona has four players 6-foot-10 or taller, including three freshmen bigs — Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett. The three arguably have played their best games in recent weeks.
“If you think about the experience they have gotten from start to finish, they are no longer freshmen, and you can see that out there,” Miller said. “They’re more sure of themselves on offense and defense. Like any team, our team is so much better and more difficult to beat when those three guys are playing well. Hopefully tomorrow that will be the case.”
Belmont, a private liberal arts university located in Nashville, also has yet to win an NCAA tournament game. The Bruins have been to the tournament five times since 2006 and lost big four of those years. The one time they were in it, they pushed No. 2 seed Duke to the brink before losing 71-70 in 2008.
As for Arizona players and coaches, there is a familiarity with Utah, even if some of the memories are heart-breaking.
In 2010, Xavier tangled with Kansas State in the round of 16, the game not settled until double overtime when K-State prevailed 101-96. Arizona senior point guard Mark Lyons was part of that Xavier team.
“I just remember the intensity of the game, seems like every shot was a big shot and every possession meant the game,” he said.
In 1993, Steve Nash-led Santa Clara upset No. 2 Arizona 64-61 in the first round in Salt Lake City. In 2003, top-seeded Arizona beat Gonzaga in double-overtime in the second round.
The tourney was played those two years at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus. The last time Arizona played at the home of the Utah Jazz, during the 2010-11 regular season, the Wildcats were trounced by a Jimmer Fredette-led Brigham Young team.
Miller, who is in his fourth year at Arizona, eventually would take that Wildcat team to the regional final. Overall, he has a 9-5 NCAA tourney record as a head coach.
Asked what has made him successful in the NCAAs through the years, he said teams advancing beyond the first weekend didn’t change personalities.
“The one thing that stands out is that we were ourselves,” he said. “The things that we did well during the season that we learned to make part of our overall identity, those things didn’t change once we entered the tournament. We were able to establish those same strengths.
“Sometimes in this tournament, game pressure in the moment becomes so big that you can deviate. Players do things they haven’t done. Teams almost take on a different personality and in those cases, the personality of our team remained the same. That’s what we are going to try to do tomorrow against Belmont. We have to be a very good rebounding team and a good-minded defensive team. On offense, we have to play unselfish basketball where we can create good shots.”