LAWRENCE — Here are a few known facts about Belmont University, Kansas’ opponent Saturday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
The undergraduates number just more than 5,000. The music programs are world-renowned. And the Belmont men’s basketball program plays its home games in a cozy little on-campus venue in Nashville, Tenn., called the Curb Event Center — a building that would need more than three games to equal the attendance for one game inside Allen Fieldhouse.
By almost every measure, Belmont exists outside the world of major-college basketball. But in scheduling Belmont, a perennial contender in the Ohio Valley Conference, there’s another measure that Kansas coach Bill Self is focused on.
Ratings Percentage Index. That all-important figure that includes strength of schedule and seems to come up every March. And for a team like KU, there’s another term for Belmont: RPI Gold.
“This is a good RPI game,” Self says, “without question.”
But here’s the funny thing about playing Belmont. Kansas, with its roster of top recruits and potential pros, will have to go out and deal with the ever-so-slight possibility that they could lose to a mid-major on their home court.
“Belmont can beat us,” Self says. “I’m telling you. They can beat us. They can stretch it. They can take advantage of ball-screen matchups and things like that. And they’re superbly coached.”
There may be a little bit of coach-speak here. But Belmont (7-2) defeated Middle Tennessee State on Thursday and is an early-season computer darling. According to college basketball stats maven Ken Pomeroy, the Bruins grade out as the No. 23 team in the country. Belmont also features the 15th-most efficient offense, and senior guard Ian Clark is shooting 56 percent from three-point range. Add it up, and Belmont is aiming for its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005-06
“We’re not going into it taking any team lightly,” senior forward Kevin Young said. “We know they can play.”
During Self’s tenure at Kansas, talented mid-majors have been a consistent bugaboo. Since the 2004-05 season, Self’s Kansas teams have lost 22 nonconference games — an average of less than three per season. Of course, nine have come against teams from non-BCS conferences.
“When we scheduled them,” Self says, “I thought it would be one of the very best nonconference games that we’d play at home this year, without question. Maybe arguably the toughest one.”
The Jayhawks, of course, are coming off their most complete performance of the season — a 90-54 beating of a Colorado team that may make some noise in the Pac-12.
Before that victory, Self had said that his team was playing harder in practice than it was in games. For some reason, the energy wasn’t carrying over. Finally, with a packed building on a Saturday afternoon, the Jayhawks played with the pace and power that Self was looking for.
It would be easy, then, to theorize that KU just needed an environment — and name opponent — to get the juices flowing. Self, though, doesn’t see it that way.
“I think it’s based more on personalities,” Self says. “You look at our personalities of our team, really Kevin (Young) is the only one that has natural energy. The other guys are just out there.”
In the past, Self says, he could always point to certain players — often veteran leaders — to provide the passion and energy. Last year it was Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Before that, the Morris twins had it.
This is one reason Self believes that his current team isn’t quite as seasoned as last year’s team — at least, to this point in the year.
“Last year’s team,” Self says, “even though we didn’t perform great (early), you knew that they were battle-tested and tough. This year’s team hasn’t had that yet. But I would say … if you take out clips of this year’s team when we play well — compared to when we played well in the past — this year’s team ranks right up there.”
In this way, tonight’s game could do plenty for Kansas. A little boost in strength of schedule? Probably. But Self often talks about learning how to beat different types of teams — and enjoying it in the process. And the Belmont Bruins, unassuming as they may be, may just give Kansas the right test at the right time.
“To me,” Self says, “the deal is we gotta get better every day, and we shouldn’t play, from an emotion standpoint, based on who we’re playing. You only get so many times to run out of a tunnel. And those seniors’ number is dwindling.”