SALT LAKE CITY — In the 72 hours it took Belmont coach Rick Byrd to mobilize a game plan he believed could beat Arizona, the expectations back home in Tennessee became a bit warped.
Who didn't pick the Bruins to bounce Arizona out of the NCAA tournament?
"People thought we'd beat Arizona," said Belmont guard Ian Clark. "Lots of our fans."
Even Byrd was engulfed by the anticipation of a beat-the-big-dog and charm-the-nation fever. Whatever he was telling his team, it surely wasn't "we're gonna need a miracle, boys."
Perhaps Byrd watched the wrong videos while evaluating the Wildcats. Maybe his hopes grew to be unrealistic if he watched USC rip Arizona on Feb. 27. And it's conceivable he spent too long breaking down the Valentine's Day basketball massacre, when Colorado toyed with the Wildcats.
But after Arizona took Belmont apart Thursday, winning 81-64, Byrd came off as a bit puzzled. "I was more impressed with the team I saw tonight than I was scouting them," he said.
As Byrd departed an interview session at EnergySolutions Arena, he embraced his wife and two daughters in a nearby corridor and said, quietly, "they were really good."
That's often what happens to an ambitious mid-major, one that came within a whisker of eliminating Duke a few years ago and one, after five recent NCAA tournament appearances, appeared to be the next in line, the next Butler or the next VCU, to make it big.
"Some people literally expect us to win this game against a great traditional power," Byrd said.
Many of us (me as much as anyone) love the potential for romance in these sessions of basketball madness. But the reality is that the Little Guy is a Little Guy for a reason, and that was rarely more apparent than it was Thursday.
Byrd hoped to draw Arizona coach Sean Miller into a trap in which the Wildcats would assign 7-foot freshman Kaleb Tarczewski to guard Belmont's "big man," 6-7 Trevor Noack.
Noack is a capable outside shooter for his size; he has drained 38 three-pointers this year. Byrd believed that Noack could possibly change the game by (a) playing on the perimeter, thereby taking Tarczewski out of the middle, and (b) swish some game-changing three-pointers over the slower Tarczewski.
But Miller and his staff decided that Tarczewski would not guard Noack at all. Instead, Tarczewski would guard 6-6 Blake Jenkins, who had made just six three-pointers all year and wouldn't have much of a chance inside against the longer and taller Arizona front line.
"We couldn't get the offense that I thought we could get," said Byrd. "It took me too darn long to find something that would work."
To Belmont, Arizona became the Mismatch From Hell. The size-challenged Bruins could neither shoot over the much taller Wildcats, nor could they hope to rebound successfully.
The NCAA tournament is the last place a team expects to win a blowout, but on Thursday night, with 20/20 hindsight, it almost figured that Arizona would win without great difficulty. The final numbers were like those you'd see in an Arizona-NAU game in November.
Arizona shot its best field goal percentage (.569) since Dec. 18.
The Wildcats produced their best three-point percentage (.529) since Nov. 28.
Belmont made its fewest field goals (20) of the year.
Miller called his teams' 44-18 rebound advantage "pretty impressive" and "clearly the difference in the game."
It wasn't just a size advantage. It was also that Arizona continues to play with a fire it ignited two weeks ago. No wonder Byrd had difficulty recognizing this team from the one he saw on video.
But on Thursday he had difficulty recognizing his own club.
Belmont had won 17 of 19. It had been so successful shooting three-pointers, No. 2 nationally, that you'd think its guards were Steve Kerr and Salim Stoudamire.
It had shot 50 percent or better in 19 games. That's positively frightening for an opposing coach; Arizona, by comparison, had broken 50 percent just five times.
"I don't blame people for picking Belmont," said Miller. "They have a great backcourt, and they earned the seed they got. You look at them on paper, and they're scary. I don't know if anybody relishes seeing them in their bracket."
The one comparison you can draw, favorable for the Wildcats, is that Belmont's other busted game this year was an 89-60 loss at Kansas. In its other 31 games, Belmont looked the part of an 11th seed that could take down almost any No. 6 seed.
That was perception. The reality was that Belmont might have beaten Arizona a month ago. On March 21, Arizona was too big, too focused and too good for the Bruins.
"We just wanted to win by one point," Miller said. "If we won by one point in triple-overtime, we'll take it. It's about advancing. Sometimes you can play really well and (get beat)."
On Thursday, the Wildcats played well and sent Belmont home. The people back home in Tennessee aren't going to schedule a parade after all.
Contact columnist Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ghansen711