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December 26, 2011

SCS.comTake a glance at the national polls right now and tell me whoís not there.

Vanderbiltís absence probably jumps out. Memphis. Alabama. UCLA. All are gone from the top-25. Two months ago, it would have been outrageous to suggest any of those four teams would be unranked. But thatís what has happened, and these early-season disappointments are just four more examples of why sports are not an exact science.

Thereís one team, though, that takes the crown when it comes to underachieving so far: Belmont. The Bruins were not ranked to begin the season, but with almost an identical roster to a 30-win team from 2010-11, Rick Byrdís team has already lost as many games this season as it did all of last year.

Belmont has squandered almost every opportunity for quality wins this season, earning only one in November against Middle Tennessee in double-overtime. Other than that, the Bruins lost at MTSU in a December rematch, they lost by a point at Cameron Indoor to Duke, they fell at Memphis and they dropped road games to Miami (OH) and Marshall.

Yes, besides Miami, all of those opponents could realistically make the NCAA Tournament this season, and Byrd challenged his team with a road-heavy non-conference slate. Still, thatís not the point. This team shouldnít have to back down against challenges. A season ago, Belmont won four non-conference road games, including an early matchup against Sun Belt division champion Arkansas Stateóby 33 points. It finished with just one loss in Atlantic Sun play, and after an NCAA Tournament appearance, it figured to compete for an at-large bid in 2011-12.

At this point, an at-large is out of the question. Good news is, Belmont is 2-0 in the A-Sun, and it should still easily win the regular season title in its final year in the league before moving to the Ohio Valley Conference. Before the Bruins make the Dance and terrorize a higher seed, theyíve got to work out a few kinks to ensure theyíll even get to that point.

Most importantly, Belmont has to heat up from three-point range. Thatís where Byrdís team did most of its damage last year, and hardly anybody shot the ball better from beyond the arc in college basketball. So far, however, the shots havenít fallen. Junior Ian Clark is the main culprit. He made nearly 43 percent of his threes as a sophomore, but heís shooting less than 37 percent from deep this season. Sophomore wing J.J. Mann has also struggled in this category, as has just about everybody besides point guard Drew Hanlen. As a team, Belmont ranks 152nd nationally in three-point percentage. For a team that basically lives from long-range, thatís not good enough.

Secondly, Belmont has to tighten up defensively, force more turnovers and keep instilling its up-tempo style on opponents. This hasnít been a major collapse this year, but the Bruins love to play fast and they love to get up and down. Theyíve got to control tempoóand not let teams like Miami (OH) dictate the paceóand they have to get more disruptive defensively.

Despite all the criticism here, Rick Byrd can still salvage this season. Guard Kerron Johnson is enjoying a breakout season, Hanlen is playing like a senior and Byrd has the same insane depth he had last year. All is not lost by any means. Belmont can still dominate the A-Sun, win the conference tournament and make somebody sweat in the NCAA Tournament. As long as the threes start falling, these Bruins can play with anybody.

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