SAINT LEO, Fla. – The countdown starts today; t-minus six days and counting until the Saint Leo University men's basketball team hosts their first-ever postseason game.
Surely to be an unforgettable night and a momentous occasion for the Lions, the only thing determined for sure is that Saint Leo will play host in the quarterfinal round of the Sunshine State Conference Tournament. Everything else including pairings, records and, most importantly, the opponent, is still left to be determined as eight of the SSC's nine schools have one more conference game left to play.
Currently tied with Rollins for third place in conference, the Lions travel to Barry on Saturday in a game whose result could jolt them into a second-place tie with Eckerd College, who they defeated 58-49 last night. If the Lions were to slip up in Miami Shores, they could drop to fourth in the standings depending on a Rollins win against Nova Southeastern in Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday.
Despite everything, Florida Tech is assured of at least a share of the regular season title even if they lose to last-place Tampa. Aside from that fact, and that Tampa's 2-13 conference record means they will miss the SSC playoff for the second time in three years; all other matchups will rely on Saturday's outcomes.
The ability to host a first-round game seemed like fantasy as the calendar flipped to February. At that time the Lions were holding a 9-10 overall record and a 3-6 mark in the SSC, coming out of a February 1 loss to Lynn University in Boca Raton. It was a stretch where the Lions dropped four of five games, many where they had a chance to get the win in the final minutes of regulation or overtime.
Saint Leo knocked off six straight conference opponents to vault into the top-half of the standings. No fluke as to the quality of their play, four of the Lions' six wins came against schools that were in the top-half of the SSC, and all having 14 or more victories.
It may be too early to label the Lions as a Cinderella Story, but a team that was picked to finish last in conference now fights to jump into second place at season's end. Guaranteed a winning season for the first time in 14 years, first year Head Coach Lance Randall takes a completely rebuilt team (starting lineup features four transfers) into territory the program has never seen. Holding a 15-10 record, and a 9-6 SSC mark, the Lions are a far cry from the 12-16 team Randall inherited last April. That team, and its 2-14 conference record, saw just three players make the transition over to this year's team as Randall chose a clean slate approach to his 2011-12 squad.
Earning a reputation for strong defense, Randall has put the Lions into the top-5 in the nation in scoring defense as Saint Leo is only surrendering an average of 58.4 points per game. Post players Shaun Adams, Tom Neary and Spenser Mitchell keep the paint secure, while reigning SSC Player of the Week Marcus Ruh, Trent Thomas and Dominick Robinson are leading the Saint Leo scoring attack.
Ranked seventh in the NCAA South Region poll released on February 22, the Lions are also fighting for a first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. A win on Saturday to close out the regular season, compounded with a deep run into the SSC Tournament, will help the Lions stake their case for a ticket to the Big Dance.
With all the scenarios, firsts and postseason possibilities that accompany a positive but unsure future, the Lions know that the developing picture will become crystal clear on Saturday.