NORFOLK—Kent Bazemore is focused on the task at hand: winning a basketball game. Flotsam and jetsam not directly related to that goal, like RPI numbers, aren't spared much thought.
"To be honest, I don't even know how they come up with that stuff," said Bazemore, Old Dominion's junior guard. "I just come to play every night."
Bazemore and the Monarchs want to come to play Sunday, when they take on Cleveland State in a BracketBuster game televised on ESPN2. The matchup features two on-the-rise mid-major teams who have had recent NCAA tournament success (ODU beat Notre Dame in the first round of the Big Dance last year; the Vikings upended Wake Forest in the opening round two seasons ago) and are looking to shore up their postseason position this year.
The two programs also share more-than-respectable RPIs, with the Monarchs ranked 31st and the Vikings 34th. The rankings measure teams based on their record and their strength of schedule, as well their opponents'. It's a quick, fairly accurate way to judge which teams are beefing up their schedules – and, by extension, their NCAA resumes – and which aren't.
It's also not something many coaches want to talk about during the third week of February.
"We've got guys that think it's runs per innings," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "It's like your horoscope. When it's good, you're like man, I really believe in this stuff. When it's not … (But) our RPI is well-deserved this year."
The Monarchs (21-6, 12-4 Colonial Athletic Association) have wins against Clemson (72nd in the RPI), Xavier (19th), Richmond (70th) and Dayton (57th) to their credit, as well as a three-point loss to Georgetown (fifth). The Vikings (21-5, 12-4 Horizon League) have beaten Valparaiso (54th) and Kent State (94th) and lost at West Virginia (23rd), and have a senior guard averaging 21 points and generating national buzz. Norris Cole's 41 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists in a win against Youngstown State on Feb. 12 warranted mention in Seth Davis' Three-Pointer column in Sports Illustrated.
"I know they've got good players and good guards," said ODU senior forward Frank Hassell, leading the Monarchs in points (13.9) and rebounds (9.5) per game. "We're real excited about it."
After amassing a season-low point total in a 62-45 loss at George Mason (22-5, 14-2 CAA), in first place in the CAA and 20th in the RPI, on Feb. 5, ODU, tied for second in the league, has won three straight games, including a 70-59 handling of rival VCU in Richmond on Feb. 12.
"This is the time of the year when we get rolling," Bazemore said.
Last season, the Monarchs rolled to their first NCAA tournament win since 1995, knocking off the Irish 51-50. Players try to push thoughts of that heady victory aside, though, while there's work left to be done.
"Once in a while it tries to creep in there," Hassell said. "Then we just get back and zone in on the next game. You've got to take it one game at a time. You've got to grab as much as you can, one game at a time."
"That was last year," Bazemore said. "This season is totally different than last year."
Last season, the Monarchs swept the regular-season and the CAA tournament titles, earning an automatic NCAA bid. Then, like now, ODU was in good shape to earn an at-large berth – provided no surprise Cinderella steals the tournament champion's automatic entry.
Assuming the Monarchs make it back to the Big Dance, at least one opposing league coach expects them to do more damage.
"They've got a couple of things they do that help you win," said Georgia State coach Rod Barnes, whose team lost 60-43 at ODU on Tuesday. "They defend, they rebound the basketball and they shoot free throws well. They don't shoot the ball from the perimeter as well as some teams they may meet, but they can control the game. … I like their chances. They know how to win when it's time to make it happen."
On Sunday, the Monarchs can prove that to a national television audience – and to the NCAA selection committee.
"One of the things we always say is, 'Don't play a season backward,' " Taylor said. "You play and hope good things happen as you go forward. Our body of work is something that we've accomplished and (we're) proud of, but we still have a lot of ambition with a capital A inside our innards."