SAINT LEO, Fla. – Are you ready for a 1,333 mile trip into history?
If Coach Lance Randall and the 16th ranked Saint Leo University men's basketball team have any say in the matter that will be the distance Lions fans will have to travel to accompany their team in the journey to lift the Division II National Championship trophy. It will be a memorable trip with an early stop in Lakeland, Fla., followed by a stop at historic Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., and finally arriving in Atlanta, Ga. at Phillips Arena on Final Four weekend, the biggest and most widely watched weekend in college basketball.
With the NCAA's observation of the 75 Years of March Madness in 2013, all three divisions will see their Men's Basketball National Championships contested in Atlanta during the first week of April, concluding with the Division I national title game on April 8. Like every other fan of college basketball, this is the spot on the map where the Lions want to be at the end of this journey.
This journey started at Applebee's of Wesley Chapel (13 mi.) last Sunday where Saint Leo learned that they would be rewarded for their Sunshine State Conference Championship season with a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Following last year's first-ever selection, the Lions knew that on the second time around the journey had just begun.
"It's always exciting to be selected into the NCAA Tournament," Randall said. "We have reached the 'second season' and there are some players who never get that opportunity, so it is not something that we take for granted. Our selection is based on the body of work from the season, but now it is about the execution within each possession as well as overall mental and physical toughness."
The 'second season' Randall refers to begins in prime time on Saturday night when the Lions, seeded fourth in the South Region, face No. 5 seed Rollins College in Lakeland, Fla. at the George W. Jenkins Field House (34 mi.) at 8:30 p.m. Saturday starts a four-day span where the Lions will have to play three games against the region's top teams, concluding with the South Region Championship on Tuesday night.
While it is a familiar building to the Lions, with tournament host Florida Southern College also playing in the Sunshine State Conference, the setting is completely different. Instead of a mid-week regular-season conference game, contests played in the South Region site now allow the continuation of a team's season with a win, or the final period to be put on another year with postseason play following a loss.
Beyond the South Region Championship, and the large trophy that accompanies it, lays a journey that no team in Division II has ever experienced on the path to a national title.
Normally the final destination, this time the Elite Eight will be the middle stop of the journey. Making it more memorable for the Lions will be the potential to play at historic Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. (869 mi.) as one of the eight-best teams left standing in Division II. Nine days after deciding the South Region Championship, the Lions would visit the site of six NCAA Division I Final Fours and the former home of the Louisville Cardinals on March 28 and 30 as they look to advance to the title game.
"Freedom Hall has such a great history and tradition," Randall said. "The athletic accomplishments witnessed inside that building are incredible and playing at a place like that brings awareness that once you have reached that point, you can win it."
In Louisville the Lions would face representatives from the West Region in the Elite Eight as well as the Midwest or Southeast in the semifinals. With the current regional alignment for Division II, the Elite Eight would consist of the eight winners from their respective regions around the country from an original field of 64 teams. In addition to the South, West, Midwest and Southeast Regions, representatives from the East, South Central, Central and Atlantic Regions would make up the final eight teams vying for a chance at the title.
Advancing to the Championship Game, Saint Leo would journey to Atlanta, Ga. (417 mi.), the 2013 epicenter of college basketball for the title game. Sandwiched in between the Division I Final Four games on Saturday and its National Championship game on Monday, the Division II title game will be played on Sunday, April 7. Playing at Phillips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks on the day before the Division I National Championship, the Lions would be taking the biggest stage in the school's history, but at a facility familiar to Randall.
Randall is no stranger to either Freedom Hall or Phillips Arena. Having coached in Division I games at both venues, the Lions' second-year head coach's experience could provide a potential edge when Saint Leo sets foot on the hardwood in both Louisville and Atlanta.
Logging 1,333 miles, the Lions understand that it is a journey that will test even the most hardcore supporter of the Green and Gold, but it is one Coach Randall is excited to undertake.
"It's a great opportunity for Division II to be included in Final Four weekend," Randall said. "While we as a team get locked in during practices and game days, it comes as a broader enjoyment of where we are; knowing that the fans, family and people in general care about our team. I am expecting a great showing of fan support in Lakeland and I hope our fans enjoy watching this team as much as we enjoy coaching them."
Saint Leo, to Lakeland, to Louisville, and finally to Atlanta. 1,333 miles and a path to a National Championship. New tires may be needed.