For the ninth year since its inception in 2011 when the field expanded to 68 teams, the First Four will kick off the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday from Dayton, Ohio. With each day featuring a 16-seed matchup followed by a showdown between two 11-seeds, the First Four provides the perfect appetizer for the complete chaos that begins Thursday.
The first of those 11-seed games showcases two of the last four teams to earn at-large selections in Temple and Belmont. Both the Owls and Bruins were on the edge of their seats on Selection Sunday but were ecstatic to hear of their inclusion in the field of 68 despite losses in their respective conference tournaments, Temple in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) quarterfinals to Wichita State, and Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) final to Murray State.
The winner of this First Four matchup — which will mark the inaugural meeting between the two programs — will square off with No. 6 Maryland in the East Region in Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday.
The selection to the tournament snaps mini-droughts for both teams, as Temple is dancing for the first time 2016. Belmont is making its first appearance since 2015 and more importantly, its first ever as an at-large selection. Both teams are led by incredibly well-respected and experienced head coaches in the Owls' Fran Dunphy (13th season at school) and Bruins' Rick Byrd (34th).
First Four: No. 11 Temple Owls (23-9) vs. No. 11 Belmont Bruins (26-5)
Time: Approximately 9:10 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Keys for Temple
Temple relies on one of the most basic yet important principles of the game, especially come tournament time: ball control. The Owls don’t shoot it particularly well (43.9 percent from the field) but they are plus-3.7 on a per-game basis in the turnover department, which leads the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and is the 13th-best mark nationally. The Owls force nearly 15 turnovers per game while limiting their own turnovers to 11.2, a recipe that comes in handy when the calendar flips to March.
Winners of eight of their last 11 games, Temple is driven by do-it-all senior guard and AAC First-Team selection Shizz Alston. Alston has catalyzed Temple’s run to the tournament to the tune of 19.7 points per game, while shooting 90.7 percent from the free-throw line, and playing 37.1 minutes per game. All three of these numbers lead the AAC. Alston has some help in junior guard and AAC second-team pick Quinton Rose, whose is second on the team and ninth in the conference in scoring (16.5 ppg). Sophomore and the AAC’s co-Most Improved Player Nate Pierre-Louis also chips in with 13.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, the latter of which trails senior and co-captain Ernest Aflakpui’s seven rebounds per game (sixth in AAC).
Keys for Belmont
To characterize Belmont as an offensive juggernaut would be, well… accurate. The Bruins lead the nation in assists per game with 19.9, and their 1.71 assist-to-turnover ratio is good enough for second behind West Region No. 1 seed Gonzaga. As expected from a team that shares the ball so well, the Bruins possess the second-best scoring offense (87.4 ppg) in Division I, once again behind Gonzaga (88.8). The Bruins score efficiently, shooting just a shade under 50 percent (49.9), which places them fourth in the nation.
The primary beneficiaries of this high-flying Belmont offense include senior wingman Dylan Windler (21.4 ppg) and freshman guard Grayson Murphy, whose 6.6 assists per game rank 12th in the nation. Freshman center Nick Muszynski leads the Ohio Valley Conference by shooting 60.8 percent from the field while also contributing on the defense with nearly 2.2 blocks per game.
Belmont certainly possesses all the tools necessary to score in the postseason, doing so efficiently and at an electric pace, but Temple’s ability to cause turnovers while valuing its own possessions could threaten the Bruins’ chances. As the conclusion to the first of the two days of First Four games, look for this one to keep the madness rolling into the night.
Prediction: Belmont 78, Temple 70
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.