SAINT LEO, Fla. – The Saint Leo men's basketball team now has the challenge laid ahead. The Lions released their 2012-13 schedule on Thursday and it features 26 regular season games and two Division I exhibitions in a slate loaded with nationally ranked teams and NCAA Tournament, as well as Sunshine State Conference title contenders.
"We felt it was important as a coaching staff to play as difficult a non-conference schedule as we could put together," Head Coach Lance Randall said of the scheduled competition. "Every one of our opponents is either an NCAA Division I or NCAA Division II team. We have tried to create a schedule that balances rigid early season tests for our players with exciting and entertaining games for our fans."
If a return trip to the NCAA Tournament is in order, the Lions will have to roll through the states of Wisconsin, North Carolina and Virginia before facing the majority of their Sunshine State Conference opponents once the calendar flips to the New Year.
Before all of that, the Lions look at two of the toughest exhibition games for a Division II school as Saint Leo faces both the University of Miami (Fla.) and Florida State University in an extended weekend Atlantic Coast Conference doubleheader.
Randall continued, "I am excited to play such an incredibly difficult exhibition schedule. It is an honor to compete against two excellent programs form the premier basketball conference in the nation. These teams have future NBA players on their rosters, great coaches on the sidelines and post-season experience under their belts. We are very fortunate to get these games for our players and our fans."
Opening exhibition play against Miami on November 2, Saint Leo will travel to the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables and take on a Hurricane squad that is coming off a 20-13 season where they finished tied for fourth in the ACC, one of the toughest basketball conferences in the nation. The Lions will be facing a Miami team that qualified for the NIT under second-year head coach Jim Larranaga.
On the other side of the ACC coin, the Lions travel to Tallahassee on November 5 to face Florida State at the Tucker Center (Leon County Civic Center). Saint Leo's second Division I opponent in four days begins the follow-up campaign to a 2011 ACC Championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. Beginning his 11th year, FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton welcomes back four of the top five scorers from the NCAA Tournament team of 2011-12.
The schedule doesn't get any easier once the Green and Gold moves into contests that count toward their win/loss totals as the Lions' home opener on November 9 pits Saint Leo against one of Division II's newest schools, but an NAIA powerhouse in Shorter University. The first time fans can see the Lions on the new Bowman Center hardwood, also sees last year's NAIA Division I top-ranked team attempt to spoil the opener. The newest member of the Gulf South Conference and located in Rome, Ga., Shorter returns all of their top scorers from a team that advanced to the NAIA Final Four only a year ago.
Saint Leo will then face Tuskegee five days later in the teams' second meeting in as many seasons. The Lions won the previous meeting 87-51 back on December 18, 2011 behind a 58 percent shooting effort from the floor in a game lauded by Randall as a 'nice team win.'
"There is little margin for error as we play against the newest in region opponent Shorter. They return the top two scorers and rebounders as well as multiple starters from the team that finished No. 1 in the country and reached the Final Four in NAIA Division I. On Wednesday, we turnaround and face another in-region opponent and perennial NCAA tournament qualifier, Tuskegee."
Heading into the Thanksgiving weekend, the Lions travel to Milwaukee, Wisc. and compete in the Fresh Coast Basketball Classic over November 23-24. Contested at Wisconsin Lutheran College, the Lions are one of four teams to play in the tournament where they face 2011 Fresh Coast Classic Champs Lincoln University on the first day. The second day's opponent depends on the finish of the game against Lincoln, but the Lions will face either Northern Michigan or 2012 NCAA Tournament team and regional power Winston-Salem State.
"This is a great opportunity to play top-notch NCAA Division II teams in what has been traditionally a very good tournament. Winston- Salem State will be one of the best teams in the country. In addition, it provides a chance for our many fans in the Midwest to see their Lions play."
Returning to the Bowman Center the following weekend, Saint Leo welcomes Armstrong Atlantic State, Fort Valley State and Tampa to the four-team, two-day Saint Leo Invitational competed on November 30 and December 1. The Lions will face Armstrong Atlantic State on Friday night with Fort Valley State waiting as their Saturday opponents. Perennially a top team from the Peach Belt Conference, Armstrong Atlantic will visit the Bowman Center for the first time since the 1990-91 season and face the Lions. Following their matchup with the Pirates, Saint Leo will then square off against Fort Valley State from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in an important region game against tough competition.
"This tournament provides an early season SSC tournament feel against great competition, all while negotiating quick scouting turnarounds. I think our fans will love to watch the high powered offensive machine of Armstrong Atlantic, while again Fort Valley State will be another very important in-region contest."
Heading into December the Lions face their first conference competition when Saint Leo hosts Nova Southeastern on December 12 in an SSC opener. In matching up with the team that the Lions dispatched in the first round of last year's SSC Tournament, fans will hopefully see a glimpse of what to expect when Saint Leo continues conference play the following month.
One final long-distance trip awaits Saint Leo as the Lions travel to the Mid-Atlantic States for two games prior to Christmas. Extending their fan base to the Virginia-area centers, Saint Leo first travels to Richmond, Va. where they face Virginia Union University on December 15. Two days later a game with Elizabeth City State awaits Saint Leo in Elizabeth City, NC as the Lions close out 2012 in the northeast corner of the Tar Heel State.
"Sandwiched between finals and Christmas Break, are two very important road contests. This will give us a chance to further develop the needed toughness and focus required to win against good opponents on the road"
Rolling into 2013 sees the Lions draw the first bye week in the SSC schedule, but Saint Leo makes up for the open date with a January 2 meeting with NCAA independent Palm Beach Atlantic University. After a one-year hiatus from playing each other, the Lions and Sailfish pick up where they left off in 2010-11 when they split the season's series.
Save for another game with PBA on January 30, this time on the road, Saint Leo dives headlong into conference play starting with Lynn on January 5 and follows that with a much-anticipated home game against Florida Southern on January 9. The Lions will face the Moccasins for the first time since Florida Southern snatched the SSC Tournament Championship away from the Green and Gold in the final minute last season.
Randall concluded his thoughts with his attention turned to conference play, "The SSC will be very strong this year as many teams return key players that figured prominent roles last season. I expect this to be a wide open race with little separation in talent between the top of the league and those that will finish near the bottom."
"Teams that learn early how to defend, share the ball and develop that predator instinct required of champions will have the best chance to separate from rest of the pack. We are very much looking forward to the opportunity to compete in this great basketball league."
The annual SSC Tournament, which has changed its format to include all nine teams, is slated to begin on March 6 in Kissimmee, Fla. at the Silver Spurs Arena. Last year, the Lions' incredible run into the NCAA Tournament went through the SSC Tournament Championship Game, a close loss to Florida Southern.