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With a new head coach, University of North Alabama is ready for its Division I moment

The Lions will play in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

Attention fans of mid-major college basketball: There is a new team in the southeast to watch. For the first time in the school’s history, the University of North Alabama will be participating in Division I athletics, beginning in the 2018-19 academic year.

In the meantime, let’s get to know the folks at UNA.

What’s their name?

The University of North Alabama Lions.

And where exactly is North Alabama?

In the city of Florence, which is just north of the Tennessee River, but south of the state of Tennessee. It’s about two hours south of Nashville and two hours north of Birmingham.

Any famous alums?

A couple of NFL players, including New York Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Other famous North Alabama alums include a handful of politicians, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Clay Bennett and Michael Connor Humphreys, who played the young Forrest Gump.

Anything interesting about North Alabama?

Yeah, so, there’s two, like, real actual lions that live on campus.

Wait, what?

Yes. Their names are Leo III and Una.

Leo I was born in Knoxville in 1973 and brought to the school a year later by the president of the university. Leo I lived in the president’s garage until the on-campus habitat was built. Since then, at least one lion has lived on campus as the school’s mascot, and the school boasts them as “the only live Lion mascots in the country living on a college campus,” because, like, duh. What other school would have lions living on its campus? Step up your games, Old Dominion, Loyola Marymount and Penn State.

Leo III and Una live in the 12,764 square-foot George H. Carroll Lion Habitat. And you don’t have to go to Florence to see them. On the school’s website, there is a 24-hour LION CAM.

Talk to me about sports.

North Alabama has been a member of the Division II Gulf South Conference since 1973. Its football team has been really good lately, winning its conference title five times since 2009. It’s men’s basketball team doesn’t have a ton of recent success, but won its conference title in 2014. The most recent national title for the school came in 2016, for women’s softball.

Also, Ivy Wallen, a women’s basketball player, led all the NCAA Div. II players in assists this past season with 9.4 per game.

When did they make the move to Division I?

North Alabama has been flirting with the idea for the past several years but accepted an invitation from the Atlantic Sun Conference in Dec. 2016. North Alabama will play all sports in the ASUN, except for football, where it will compete in the Big South.

During the men’s basketball team’s Division II run, it won two National Championships, in 1979 and 1991. The 1979 team was the first from the state of Alabama to win a national championship.

How was their men’s basketball team last season?

Eh. They went 15-13 and lost in the first round of their conference tournament. They did beat (perhaps a future regional rival?) South Alabama in an exhibition game.

Who is their head coach?

It was Bobby Champagne, who had been there since 2003, but the administration informed him they wouldn’t be renewing his contract at the end of the 2018 season. North Alabama named Tony Pujol, a long-time assistant with stops at Wyoming, Alabama, Appalachian State and VCU to replace him. According to HoopDirt, Larry Cordaro, Philip Pearson and James Strong were also candidates.

What should I know about Tony Pujol?

He played baseball and basketball at Sterling, a NAIA school in Kansas. He graduated in 1989 with a business degree, then jumped into the high school coaching ranks in Florida, coaching at two schools in Miami. In nine seasons at Northwest Christian Academy, he went 250-46 and won three state titles.

He got his start in college coaching in 2004, when Houston Fancher hired him as an assistant at Appalachian State. He was an assistant for Anthony Grant at TCU from 2006 to 2009, making two NCAA tournament appearances before bolting to Alabama with Grant.

Pujol took a year and half off from coaching and then resurfaced on Allen Edwards’ staff at Wyoming in 2016. According to the Casper Star Tribune, Pujol was critical to recruiting Anthony Mack to Wyoming.

What returning players should be good?

Their leading scorer was Kendall Stafford, a 6-foot-4 wing who transferred in from Northeast Mississippi Community College. He had 15.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game and also shot 45.8 percent from three. His father, mother and uncle all attended UNA.

Another Northeast Mississippi Community College player, Kendarius Smith, should be good again for the Lions. The 5-foot-10 guard averaged 14.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game as a junior.

Kevin Ndahiro, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Stetson, contributed in 27 games off the bench too.

Any incoming recruits to watch?

Emanuel Littles is a 6-foot-7 forward from Lanett, Alabama who received interest from Campbell, Towson, Alcorn State, Mercer, Samford, New Mexico State, Florida Gulf Coast, Stetson, New Hampshire, Presbyterian, FAU and Alabama A&M, according to Verbal Commits. He’s signed his LOI and seems like a player who can contribute right away.

Anything else?

The Lions’ court is getting a makeover and it looks pretty good.