Starting Nov. 6, North Alabama men’s basketball will begin Division I play in the NCAA. The Lions announced their schedule Aug. 28.
The Lions will play prominent schools from across the state and nation, boosting publicity and building a reputation that can lead to games against well-known teams. To beat these teams, North Alabama athletes must be prepared physically and mentally. North Alabama is up against tough opponents inside and outside their conference.
“I’m excited about what we’re embarking into,” said men’s head basketball coach Tony Pujol. “It’s all new to everybody here. It’s the first time that this university, in all our sports, gets to play Division I.”
This semester is full of games against big-name teams to acclimate the Lions to large opponents. They will face teams such as Samford, Troy, UAB and Gonzaga, who made it to the Sweet 16 in March Madness for the past four years and played in the NCAA tournament every year since 1999.
“I’m excited about the upcoming schedule,” said senior guard Kendarius Smith. “I think coach Pujol did a good job of creating that. At the beginning, we play a bunch of good teams that will prepare us for when we get to the [ASUN] conference. I like everyone on our team’s attitude. I think that we’re all on the same page and that is why we’ll do well this year.”
North Alabama only plays 12 home games of the 31 this season. 2018 holds four home games for UNA with 11 being away at schools around the country instead of the Southeast. 2019 marks the beginning of conference play against teams like Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State and Florida Gulf Coast.
“We’re playing some great teams, so that’s going to make us better in the long run,” said senior guard/forward Kendall Stafford. “We’re working together. Everything is pretty good and we just like being around each other, so we’re going to have good chemistry this year.”
To prepare for the season, the athletes exercise as a team eight hours a week. They are allowed four hours in the arena and four more in the weightroom with strength and conditioning coaches. Pujol said those eight hours are a minimum and the players are expected to continue training on their own.
“They discipline themselves to come in on their own,” Pujol said. “To spend time in the gym working on their craft. This is the time of the year where the team is really built. This is the time of the year where the individual is built. When the season starts, it’s a product of what we’ve done from July all the way to the season.”
Basketball practice is underway, but the athletes have been working since summer to improve their team. They work not only physically but mentally to hone their skills and habits.
Pujol said discipline is important to him and important to a successful team. Fans can only wait to see how this year turns out for the Lions. Their first game is Nov. 6 at Samford, with the first home game Nov. 10 against Blue Mountain.