Hard work nets Belmont basketball its 'hardest' non-conference schedule

Thursday, August 30, 2012 at 11:12pm

For nearly four months, Belmont has known it would open at rival Lipscomb in its men's basketball season opener.

That was the easy part. The rest of the non-conference schedule took a little bit longer to put together.

Having been to the NCAA Tournament five of the last seven years, perhaps Belmont wasn’t the ideal non-conference foe for most. But on Thursday, the Bruins finally released their 2012-13 schedule, headlined by games at national champion runner-up Kansas, Stanford and VCU.

“It did take a while,” coach Rick Byrd. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy for anybody, I don’t think, any more. It has been difficult the last several years. I think we ended up with a lot of good additions. ... It’s a tough schedule, a difficult one. I have to believe the most difficult we’ve encountered yet.”

For the second time in four years, the Bruins will play at historic Allen Fieldhouse and take on perennial power Kansas on Dec. 15. Seniors Brandon Baker, Adam Barnes, Ian Clark, Kerron Johnson and Trevor Noack also played the Jayhawks as freshmen.

Belmont will also head to Stanford, which is coached by former Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins, on Nov. 18. After playing in the previously announced Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving break, the Bruins will travel to VCU on Dec. 1. The Rams have made the NCAA Tournament the last two years and reached the Final Four in 2011.

The Bruins open at Lipscomb on Nov. 9 to continue the Battle of the Boulevard rivalry, and the Bisons return the trip on Dec. 4. Middle Tennessee follows by coming into the Curb Event Center on Dec. 13. The Blue Raiders split two games with the Bruins last year.

Belmont wraps up its home non-conference schedule against South Dakota State, another 2012 NCAA Tournament team, on Dec. 19. The UCF Classic on Dec. 28-29 in Orlando caps off the out of conference slate before the Bruins begin their first season in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The top two scorers — Clark and Johnson — return along with nine lettermen but the Bruins must replace the inside production from big men Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders. Belmont is coming off a 27-8 season, which included capturing the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season and tournament titles and reaching the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

“I think we’ll have a good basketball team but I think what happens in the interior will probably tell us how good we can be more than anything else,” Byrd said.