HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The Saint Leo men's basketball team woke up in their hotel room for the first morning of what will hopefully be a long stay in Huntsville, Ala. It was a Thursday that featured an early-morning wake-up call, a flight to Nashville, Tenn. and a two-hour trip into Huntsville. The day finished with a late practice at a local high school as the Lions began to acclimate to their new city. As the long day came to an end and the Lions settled into their rooms, many thought back and reflected upon the journey to the Lions' first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.
So how did Saint Leo Men's Basketball, a program that was considered a non-contender in many basketball circles for many decades, come to earn a spot in the 'Big Dance' and turn so many heads in just a short amount of time?
As the Lions spend Friday meeting, watching film, and practicing for their first-round matchup with Florida Tech on Saturday night, here is the timeline of a journey and amazing turnaround that is one for the history books:
- February 29, 2011 – http://www.saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2010-11/releases/20110714vnoy65 The Lions finish the 2010-11 season 12-16 overall and 2-14 in the Sunshine State Conference after an 85-70 win over Barry. Just the Lions' second victory in 11 games, Saint Leo Men's Basketball is a program that finished last in the SSC regular season, will not qualify for the conference tournament, has no coaching staff, and has a questionable future with just three players remaining on the roster.
- April 8, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2010-11/releases/20110714vzch10 After nearly a two-month long national search, Saint Leo University announces that Lance Randall, former Webster University head coach and Wisconsin coaching icon, is taking the reins of the Lions' men's basketball program. It will be his task to turn the Lions into a contender. Randall -"I am looking forward to the challenges that await as we work towards building a championship program steeped in the core values of Saint Leo University."
- June 17, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2010-11/releases/20110714rehotg Randall begins to assemble his coaching staff. Announcing Division I standout J.R. Blount, from Loyola University in Chicago, has joined his coaching staff.
- July 15, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20110803ap1e61 The first pieces of the puzzle begin to come together as Randall unveils his incoming freshman. Taylor Bassett, Cale Girten and Angel Gonzalez joined the Lions as first-year players in August.
- August 5, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20110805iac6t6 Looking back, probably the most important article of the year at that point. The announcing of additions Shaun Adams, Jerrel Harris, Derik Hawkey, Tom Neary and Marcus Ruh. While Jerrel will eventually redshirt, the others will play a big part in the turnaround. Ruh eventually named All-SSC First-Team and All-Newcomer team.
- September 12, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20110912yn8asc The final additions to the rebuilt team. Trent Thomas and Sven Sabljak transfer to Saint Leo. Thomas eventually is named SSC Newcomer of the Year and All-SSC First-Team.
- October 13, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/201110138820lw The 2011-12 Schedule is announced in tandem with the annual Moonlight Madness celebration. "We have a very challenging schedule that includes three NCAA Division I opponents on the road and many games against traditionally nationally ranked teams," Randall said. "In order to reach our goals as a program, I feel it is in our best interest to compete against the best in the country. This is as difficult a non-conference schedule as there is in the region. We are excited about these rigorous tests that await."
- November 11, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/RSEN_Partnership Rocket Sports & Entertainment Network joins the Lions broadcasting efforts. RSEN will produce live broadcasts of 14 Saint Leo University Lions men's basketball regular season home games that will be broadcast over WDCF 1350am in Dade City, Fla. Rick 'The Rocket' Sassone and 'The Coach' Mike Madagan eventually expand the coverage into the postseason, including Tournament games in Alabama.
- November 11, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/201111128ycmmm Finally! The brand-new Saint Leo men's basketball team takes to the hardwood for the first time in 2011-12 as they post a 64-53 win over Southeastern.
- November 15, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20111115b1o41p The Lions' first tough test is passed when they defeat regional powerhouse Valdosta State 69-51 in front of almost 3,000 spectators in Georgia.
- November 26, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20111126x87eyv The Lions break a 26 year old record when they defeat Trinity 118-50. It is a point total the Lions have not reached in a win since 1984.
- December 13, 2011 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20111214prnpzv The Lions travel to New Orleans, La. and battle with the University of New Orleans. While the Lions cannot sneak away with a victory, the Lions get an opportunity to play in a large arena and travel long-distance. It is an experience that Coach Randall will later reference as helpful for their trip to Huntsville.
- January 4, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/2012010428s9e0 The Lions open up the New Year by blasting arch-rival Tampa 63-45 on the road. The first conference win of the year.
- February 4, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20120205532yj8 Saint Leo bounces SSC-leading Florida Tech to begin record-setting nine-game win streak. After the win, the Lions would be 10-10 overall and 4-6 in the SSC. They would not lose again in the regular season. Randall - "It was a gutsy performance and a much-needed win."
- February 15, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/201202162qvi60 Lions sweep Florida Southern for the first time in the series' history. The 75-72 road win marked the first time since their first meeting on January 16, 1967, that Saint Leo swept the regular season contests after Dominick Robinson hit a three-pointer with time winding down to win the first meeting 60-57 back on January 11.
- February 20, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/201202204p2f54 Marcus Ruh earns the team's first SSC Player of the Week Award after he shot 60 percent from the field and 88 percent at the free throw line to send the Lions to an undefeated week. The Lions' win streak (up to five at that time) had guaranteed their first winning season since 1997-98.
- February 25, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20120225idy9h5 Exactly two months after Christmas the Lions open up their best present yet, the opportunity to host their first-ever postseason home game after a 61-56 win on the road at Barry.
- February 29, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20120301a9a95e Lions cruise to home playoff win over Nova Southeastern. The win-streak is now at eight games.
- March 3, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20120303piqa9v Behind Trent Thomas's 30-point night, Saint Leo advances to its first Sunshine State Conference Tournament Championship game since 1986 after a 73-67 win over Eckerd.
- March 4, 2012 - http://saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20120304axiu0c The Lions drop the SSC Tournament Championship game to Florida Southern 61-58. Solidifying the turnaround of the program, the majority of the almost 900 spectators were those clad in Green and Gold as they dominated the tempo inside the Jenkins Field House, Florida Southern's home gym.
- March 4, 2012 - http://youtu.be/WCoZwpMcrdg The Lions learn of their first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament in an unofficial gathering in the Bowman Center.
- March 5, 2012 - http://www.saintleolions.com/sports/mbkb/2011-12/releases/20120305c06hjp The Lions learn they will face Florida Tech in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Saint Leo University men's basketball team continues their historic journey on Saturday, March 10, when they square off against Florida Tech in the first round of the South Region Tournament. Tip-off against the Panthers is set for 9:30 p.m. Fans will be able to catch all of the action live at saintleolions.com.