LOUISVILLE — When defending NCAA II men's basketball champion Bellarmine wants to face tough competition, it need not look far.
Nationally ranked Northern Kentucky, Southern Indiana, Indianapolis and Kentucky Wesleyan all lay within 120 miles or so of Knights Hall.
All, including Bellarmine, are in the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
In fact, all are in the East Division of the GLVC.
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Heading into the final week of the regular season, Bellarmine is ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II. Northern, second in the GLVC East, ranks 15th; third-place Southern Indiana is No. 11; Wesleyan and Indianapolis, tied for fourth place, rank Nos. 12 and 25, respectively.
At one point this season, the GLVC had four of the top nine teams in the nation.
"That is mind-boggling," said Scott Davenport, in his seventh year as Bellarmine's coach.
Those GLVC East teams occupy five of the top six spots in the NCAA Midwest Region rankings. A sixth East member, Lewis, is eighth in the region. The regional tourney will include eight teams.
"It's the best league in basketball, Division II," Wesleyan Coach Todd Lee said. "And, obviously, our division is the best in the country."
In non-conference games this season, GLVC East teams are 59-5. Two losses came against Division I teams.
Bellarmine (23-2, 15-2 GLVC) has clinched the division title and No. 1 seed in the league tournament.
"We have five teams in the top 25," said Braydon Hobbs, a senior guard who holds Bellarmine career records for steals, assists, three-pointers and games played. "So to say we're the champions of the regular-season conference means a lot to me."
Bellarmine ends the regular season Thursday at Northern Kentucky (21-4, 13-4).
Also Thursday, Southern Indiana (20-5, 12-5) will visit Kentucky Wesleyan (19-6, 11-6). Indianapolis (18-7, 11-6) will travel to St. Joseph's.
While the league tournament will be played at neutral-site Springfield, Ill., the region tournament will be played at the home of the top seed.
"We've got a lot of weapons on this team," said Jeremy Kendle, a senior guard who ranks fifth on Bellarmine's list of career points. "But we've got to continue to work hard and continue to get better. We're in a great position now. Hopefully we keep on getting better and host the region."
Kentucky Wesleyan's Lee hopes that his Panthers can make a post-season run. But he is aware that Bellarmine is poised to repeat.
"Jeremy Kendle and Braydon Hobbs are the two best guards in the country, and they play on the same team," Lee said. "They have the tools to win it again, and the experience, obviously.
"Both of them are exceptional players. I think Braydon Hobbs is the best player in the country, and he's not even the player of the year in the league. Kendall is."
In addition to Bellarmine's 2011 title, Kentucky Wesleyan and Southern Indiana have won national championships. Wesleyan has a record eight crowns (1966, '68,'69, '73, '87, '90, '99, 2001), Southern Indiana won it all in 1995.
"It's a great tradition — eight national titles, the most championships in Division II," said Marseilles Stewart, a senior who came to Wesleyan from San Francisco. "We still want to make our run to try to get that ninth one. ... That's why people come to this school — because of the tradition, because of the eight national titles, because of the fans, because it's a great atmosphere that we have, especially when we go to the (Owensboro) Sportscenter."
Davenport is building tradition at Bellarmine. The Knights had four 20-win seasons in the first 57 years of the program. Since then, they've added four consecutive 20-win seasons.
The key now, he says, is to not look too far ahead. He uses a golfer to explain.
"Paul Azinger, when he (captained) that Ryder Cup team here in Louisville, he preached that he 'stayed in the moment'," Davenport said. "If he can do that with 12 golfers over all that land in eastern Jefferson County, surely I can get our players, five of them, on a 94-by-50 basketball court to stay in the moment, possession by possession by possession."
And, in the GLVC East, ranked team by ranked team by ranked team.