There are more ACC teams still dancing in the NIT Elite Eight than there are in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. And Clemson hosts Belmont today with a chance to clinch a spot the Final Four with a win in the regional final. The Tigers are definitive 7.5-point favorites over the Bruins.
Clemson’s NIT journey started with a win over a mismatched Georgia State team coming off the heartbreak of the Sun Belt Conference Championship. Then it squeaked by the 2-seed Illini to finally meet the upset-minded Bruins of Belmont.
Rick Byrd’s team didn’t exactly have the roughest of draws thus far. Belmont beat a lackluster Green Bay without Keifer Sykes. Then it took down Robert Morris after the Colonials sprung their second straight upset of a 1-seed as an 8. The intersection brings together an interesting matchup or athletes and defense from the ACC against a pure shooting machine from the Ohio Valley.
I really like Belmont in this game because of that shooting ability and because it has Rick Byrd moving the chess pieces. The 60-year-old is wrapping up his 28th season as Belmont’s head coach and is one of just 11 active head coaches to have more than 600 career wins. Byrd is unflappable and his team reflects as much poise on the floor. Led by senior JJ Mann, who still won the OVC Conference Player of the Year, despite not getting another crack at the Tournament this year, the Bruins stand a great chance to spread Clemson out and shoot the Tigers into a coma. Spacing will be key for a team that won’t be able to penetrate the Clemson defense with pure athleticism. It sounds obvious, but I only say it because it’s incredibly true: if the Bruins can knock down outside shots early, it will likely continue throughout the game. Byrd will prepare his team for a game that’s much more important to his program than Clemson’s.
Free Pick: Belmont +7.5