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North Alabama is seizing its Division I moment with a tough non-conference slate

The Lions aren’t shying away from a challenge in their first season at the Division I level.

Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

Say you’re a coach of a basketball program moving up to Division I for the first time. Conventional wisdom dictates that a low-major’s non-conference schedule should be a mix of winnable home games and buy-games to promote fan interest and bring money into the program, respectively. This sounds like a win-win: Players don’t get discouraged, fans show up to presumably winnable games and the athletic department gets enough cash flow to make a similar schedule for several years.

The North Alabama Lions are not like most programs.

Instead of playing it safe in its first year at the Division I level, North Alabama head coach Tony Pujol assembled a daunting non-conference schedule that includes the likes of Gonzaga, UNC-Greensboro, Saint Louis and Pitt. To add a degree of difficulty to this gauntlet, 11 of North Alabama’s 15 non-conference games are on the road, five had 20-plus win seasons and three made the postseason. I mean, just look at their schedule:

Home games: Blue Mountain (NAIA), Huntingdon (DIII), Jacksonville State, Martin Methodist (NAIA),

Away games: Eastern Illinois, Gonzaga, Jacksonville State, Pitt, Saint Louis, Samford, Toledo, Troy, UAB, UNC-Greensboro, VMI

Cumulative record last season:* 220-182 (54.7%)

Non-Division I members aside, this looks tough! The Jacksonville State Gamecocks — who, on the heels of a 23-12 record and a CBI quarterfinal appearance, aren’t pushovers — will be the only Division I team to visit Flowers Hall in the non-conference.

As for the road slate, the Lions will travel to seven different states, including a daunting, post-Christmas trek to Spokane. Not only that, they’ll be in the program’s first-ever multi-team event by participating in the Barclay’s Center Classic. To say this schedule would be historic for the program would be an understatement.

But anyone familiar with mid and low-major basketball has seen this strategy before. Coaches at these levels often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place: Either take the Mike Davis route and get bought out every game, or only schedule bad teams that are willing to play you and pray your team doesn’t end up on the wrong side of the bubble. North Alabama’s errs towards the former, but this isn’t a bad thing.

One could make the argument that the Lions will be amongst the most tested teams in the Atlantic Sun based on their slew of road games alone. Although only Lipscomb and North Florida have officially released their non-conference slates, it’s safe to say the Lions have put themselves in a good place to contend with the rest of the A-Sun come conference play. Whether this proves to be the case remains to be seen.

But to the pessimist, there’s a good chance the Lions limp into A-Sun play with a 4-11 record (and there’s a good chance this will happen). For what it’s worth, North Alabama’s best shot at a Division I win is at Eastern Illinois, who scraped together a mere two (2) home wins in the non-conference last season. However, challenging schedules like this can reap dividends in the long run: Pujol can sell unrheralded players the prospect of playing against some of the best teams in the nation at some of college basketball’s best venues. What competitive player would pass up that opportunity?

All in all, this season’s slate shows that they aren’t going to calmly dip their toes into the pool of Division I pool. The Lions are jumping in without hesitation, which is an exciting and commendable move. Now let’s see if this gamble pays off.

*This doesn’t include records of non-Division I schools.