On one hand, Rick Byrd might be better off just cutting his losses. On the other hand, the Belmont men’s basketball coach just can’t pass up a chance like this.
So when former South Carolina coach and EA Sports Maui Invitational organizer Dave Odom called Byrd and asked him if he had a preference of which team his Bruins would open the inland portion of the tournament against, he couldn’t resist.
Byrd offered up Duke. And he got his wish.
Belmont will open the 2011-12 season on Nov. 11 at Duke in historic Cameron Indoor Stadium. The only other time the Bruins played the Blue Devils was in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2008. Belmont, seeded 15th, led in the waning moments but No. 2 seed Duke survived for a 71-70 victory.
“If I was smart, I would leave history as it is with a one-point loss instead of trying to go up there and compete with Duke in Cameron Indoor the first game of the year,” Byrd said. “Most of the time, when we schedule, we try to do it with the idea in mind that we will give guys memorable experiences. ... There is not much more tradition than Cameron Indoor and the Duke basketball program.
"Regardless of the outcome, I think it is fair to say all of us will remember the opportunity to play Duke there.”
Belmont is one of 12 schools participating in the Maui Invitational, which has expanded to the continental United States this year. Duke, Memphis, Tennessee, Kansas, Michigan, Georgetown, UCLA and host Chaminade will participate in the championship round held in Maui.
Middle Tennessee State, Towson, UNC-Greensboro and Belmont will compete in opening round games at the “island” school’s home arenas.
In addition to Duke, Belmont also will travel to Memphis on Nov. 15. On that same day, MTSU will play at UCLA. The Blue Raiders were 16-16 last year. UCLA, on the other hand, compiled a 23-11 mark and lost to Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Later that week, MTSU will host regional round games at the Murphy Center featuring Belmont, Towson and UNC-Greensboro.
On Nov. 19, MTSU will play UNC-Greensboro and Belmont will battle Towson. The next day, the winners and losers of each game will square off. Belmont and MTSU are already scheduled to play a non-conference game in Murfreesboro as they are in the second year of a home-and-home series.
On Nov. 21, the championship round in Maui will get under way. Memphis will kick it off at 2 p.m. with a contest against Michigan. Tennessee immediately follows with a matchup against Duke. Both games will be aired on ESPN2.
For Belmont, its first two games of the season will be telling.
Duke went 32-5 a year ago, losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16. They lost two talented seniors in Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler but return a lot of experience, enough so to be ranked as high as third in the country by some Division I polls.
Memphis was 25-10 and lost in the NCAA Tournament first round, also to Arizona. The Tigers are expected to contend for the Conference-USA championship once again under third-year head coach Josh Pastner.
“We’re going to find out if we are supposed to be in the top 10 [in the nation] or not, aren’t we?” Byrd said of the two matchups.
Belmont is coming off a 30-5 season as the Bruins captured the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season and tournament championships. Their historic season ended with a NCAA Tournament first-round loss to Wisconsin.
All but two of last year’s lettermen return for the Bruins. They will be the favorite to win the Atlantic Sun again in their last year in the league before moving to the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Bruins will get a head start on the season as they will play in a preseason foreign tour in Italy. They’ll leave on Aug. 14 and begin practice next Tuesday.
In fact, the NCAA grants 10 extra practices in preparation for preseason foreign trips, which a school can take every four years.
So, that gives Belmont even more of leg up for its season opener against Duke. Kind of.
“There have been mid-majors that have played them well and there have been plenty that have lost by over 30,” Byrd said. “I do think it is just a game you play. You play at Kentucky if you get the chance, at least this is what I believe. These guys will remember this game way more than most victories in their college career regardless of the outcome.”