The opening round of the NCAA Tournament gets underway Tuesday night with the Temple Owls facing the Belmont Bruins in the nightcap. On a neutral court in Dayton, the Bruins are listed as 3.5-point favorites.
The Owls sneaked into the field after finishing fourth in the American Athletic Conference this season. Temple was 13-5 inside their conference and 23-9 overall, including a few wins over major conference opponents. However, they were just 2-5 this season against teams in the field of 68.
As for Belmont, they were a surprise inclusion into the field, getting an at-large bid out of the Ohio Valley Conference. They were 26-5 overall and matched Murray State’s 16-2 conference record but lost to the Racers in the OVC Tournament finals. Other than their games with Murray State, a loss to Purdue was Belmont’s only other game this season against a tournament team, although they had no problem cruising through the rest of their schedule.
Man or Machine?
The key for Belmont is senior Dylan Windler. The 6’8’’ forward averages over 21 points per game, in large part because he shoots 43% from 3-point range. However, he’s not a pure outside shooter, as he makes 55% of his field goals thanks to the work he does in the paint. On top of that, Windler averages close to 11 rebounds and over two assists per game. In short, he does it all and is the catalyst for everything Belmont does.
Of course, the Bruins give him plenty of support. Senior point guard Kevin McClain averages over 16 points and dishes out four assists per game. McClain, Grayson Murphy, and Nick Hopkins also give Belmont a trio of dangerous outside shooters in addition to Windler. But the X-factor could be freshman center Nick Muszynski, who missed the Ohio Valley finals after picking up an ankle injury. He gives the Bruins a 6’11’’ big man to rebound and provide a strong defensive presence in the paint, something most mid-majors are lacking.
The Owls are led by the backcourt trio of Shizz Alston, Quinton Rose, and Nate Pierre-Louis. Those three combine for nearly 50 points per game and have scored roughly two-thirds of Temple’s points this season. Meanwhile, no one else on the Temple roster averages more than six points per game, so the Owls are heavily reliant on those three to carry them.
Alston is easily the most important of the three, as he averages close to 20 points per game while also averaging five assists per contest. He’s a decent shooter at 35%, but Alston is also adept at getting to the basket and getting to the free-throw line, where he shoots over 90%. The Owls aren’t a strong shooting team outside of Alston, so they’ll rely on him, Rose, and Pierre-Louis using their athleticism to get into the paint and cause problems for Belmont inside.
Temple probably has better individual players, but if one of their big three struggles, they’ll have a hard time winning. Belmont, meanwhile, has multiple players who could have a breakout game, so they don’t necessarily need Windler to carry them. In the end, a team effort from the Bruins will win out. Bet on Belmont to win and cover the 3.5-point spread against Temple.