As they approach their second meeting of the season, both the Belmont and Lipscomb men’s basketball teams are concerned with numbers that have nothing to do with scoring or rebounding averages.
A look at the state of the respective teams and their current mindsets with the latest installment of the Battle of the Boulevard at hand:
The Bisons are well aware of the number.
No, it’s not 36, the margin by which Belmont thumped them fewer than two weeks ago in this season’s first meeting between the neighboring teams. It’s 33 — or at least that’s what it was Monday, the day before the rematch.
“We have 33 days to continue to build on what we’re doing — and that’s getting to March,” coach Scott Sanderson said. “Regardless of what happens here over the next 10 games of the season, we have 33 days.
“This is the way we are. Every day, every possession is about getting better academically, athletically, religiously, socially — I’m not just talking about basketball, I’m talking about everything — to get to the ultimate title, which is March.”
The countdown, of which every member of the coaching staff reminds the players daily, takes Lipscomb to March 5, the first day of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.
Regardless of what happens from the first practice of the season until then, including the worst defeat in the storied rivalry with Belmont, is preparation for what happens during the four days of the conference tournament, which will be held in Macon, Ga.
The winner of that event earns a bid to the NCAA tournament, something Lipscomb never has done.
“We’re looking at the big picture rather than the game by game,” junior guard Jordan Burgason said. “We have to improve ourselves every game, but it’s all about who’s standing in the last game.
“We went into the conference tournament [as the No. 1 seed] last year and we got upset in the first round. That seed doesn’t really matter. It’s all about that last game and who’s playing best in the tournament.”
Players and coaches insist they have not forgotten what Belmont did to them on Jan. 13 in that 88-52 rout but also note it was hardly the end of the world, or even the season. Lipscomb has won two of three since and the only defeat was by one point at East Tennessee State.
The coaches just want to make sure the players remember what is to come.
“They won’t let us forget that and it’s definitely bringing on a sense of urgency, especially with the older guys because we know our time is running short and we have some things we want to accomplish in the next month,” senior guard Josh Slater said. “It’s verbalized every day by all the coaches. They don’t want us to forget that, that the season doesn’t last forever, our careers don’t last forever.
“And we have 33 days to do something special for this university.”
At the moment, it is the number one that defines Belmont. Since the Bruins (18-3, 10-0 Atlantic Sun) thrashed Lipscomb they have recorded a couple of firsts.
It started last week when they received a vote in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, marking the first time since they joined the NCAA Division I prior to the 1996-97 season that the men’s basketball program has received votes in either of the two most recognizable national polls.
Monday, they had one vote apiece in both the coaches and the Associated Press polls.
Still, Belmont, which is on a nine-game winning streak, is trying to not to get too caught up with the national attention.
“It is nice to be getting those votes and it is nice to want to look forward to it,” sophomore guard Kerron Johnson said. “At the same time, you look at those same writers and some of them say, 'Well, who have they played? Can they still do this? Can they still do that?' Those are the things that we look at to keep us hungry. Not how good we are doing right now.
“We still feel like we have a lot to prove because this team hasn’t done anything. We haven’t won any conference championships. We haven’t been to the Big Dance. Those things right there are our goals and that is all we are looking forward to.”
Belmont shared the 2010 Atlantic Sun regular season title with three other schools last year, including Lipscomb, but were picked to finish third to behind the Bisons and East Tennessee Sate in both the coaches and media preseason polls.
Needless to say, that fueled a Bruins squad that won 19 games during the 2009-10 season.
“I think that is always motivation, especially when you do go co-champions in the A-Sun with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores and they are all coming back,” Johnson said. “You don’t still get many looks and I think that is just more motivation. We just have to stay that way, stay motivated and play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Prior to this past weekend — with a 67-62 win at USC Upstate and a 72-62 victory at ETSU — Belmont had won every conference game by at least 17 points. Even with closer battles the last two times out, the Bruins average scoring margin in league contests is a plus 21.1 points a game.
“So far at the Division I level, so far through 21 games, it is the best [Belmont] team," coach Rick Byrd said. “I don’t think you could look at any numbers and say otherwise. If you look at any kind of numbers about scoring differential or even offensive efficiency — there all sorts of things you can look at — and we are way above the curve on both ends of the floor. ... I didn’t anticipate a team that has been on this kind of roll and made this kind of statement.”