Basketball pushes for the tournament

Coach Tony Pujol and company are closing in on the final games of the 2019-2020 basketball season. The Lions currently sit at fourth in the ASUN behind a three-way tie between Liberty, North Florida and Stetson respectively. 

After a 3-1 record in their last 4 games, the only loss coming close to Stetson at home, with a score of 54-49, North Alabama reaches a 9-11 mark for the season. They are one game behind the three-way tie with a 4-3 conference position. 

“Right now, it is Liberty,” said Pujol. “Then there is just this big clump of teams. I pay very little attention to standings, I care less about what other people do. We gotta keep focus, we just beat a very good Florida Gulf Coast team who was on a three-game winning streak. It is easy to overlook teams, so we have to lock-in.”

20 games into a 29-game season has the Lions home record standing at 7-2 and their away games at 2-9. In their first 20 games a season ago, they left a strong showing at home with a 6-1 record, but could not withstand a strong away schedule going 1-12. 

“Our guys are fearless,” said Pujol. “If you asked me if my guys were [nervous] at Gonzaga last year, yeah maybe that one. But if you look at the way we play at Indiana and Florida State, there was always fight. That is one thing a team can always say about this team is that they are gonna fight, that they always will compete.”

The 11-loss record does not reflect UNA’s overall ability as they competed against programs from top NCAA conferences, including UAB, South Carolina, Indiana, Louisiana Tech and Florida State. All five of these games were on the road.

“You play games like that so you can teach your players what it is like to play at that level,” said Pujol. “[You] show them margin of error, because teams like that can expose them quickly. The next big thing comes from a financial standpoint. These games are big for our program, they earn dollars for playing those games.”

Through the Jan. 25 date, four of the five teams were also top-100 NET rankings. Florida State, fifth; Indiana, 44th; Louisiana Tech, 83rd; and South Carolina, 91st. The Lions put up 55-plus points in each of these games, including a strong 71 against the fifth best team in the nation.

“It prepares us for our league,” said Pujol. “When you face those types of opponents and then play in our league, our guys won’t be shell shocked. Nothing’s gonna surprise them, they are prepared. That has been evident, in [ASUN] league play in our first two years, we are 10-12 overall.”

Pujol’s team has made a significant push in these first seven games to show why they are one of ASUN’s top teams. Their only three losses come from the top-three teams in Liberty (50th ranking), North Florida (197th) and Stetson (301st). UNA, themselves, rank in the 286th spot.

North Alabama received a preseason crystal ball that they would finish the ASUN in the sixth spot. The same preseason rankings had Liberty at spot one and North Florida at spot two. 

“Last year we were predicted to go 1-15 in the league, we finished 7-9,” said Pujol. “This year we were picked sixth and predicted to go 6-10; we are already 3-3 [now 4-3 after KSU win]. I think we are just speeding up the process.”

They also gave Stetson the number nine position and that they would only amass seven overall wins and only three coming from inside conference play. They currently sit tied for first in ASUN play with 5-2 record and an 11-11 record overall. 

Through their first seven conference games a season ago, North Alabama put on a 5-2 blazing start in conference play. However, in their remaining nine games the Lions only conquered two wins while suffering seven losses to end the season. Thus dropping them all the way to the sixth standing in the conference. 

After the ending to last season, Pujol saw his only two seniors, Kendarius Smith and Kendall Stafford, exit the program to sign for overseas professional teams. This leaves only one rising senior to fill their places in Cameron Diggs. 

Only one senior on the roster, Pujol looks to lean on the young core he has brought in throughout his tenure. Five sophomores and juniors on the roster, along with three freshmen make up the back end of the list. 

“That is the way we are gonna do it here,” said Pujol. “As long as I am here, we are building it and bringing in the right guys. I am not a huge believer in a fifth-year transfer, I will bring in junior-college [JUCO] guys but we mainly want to [build and] recruit freshman.”

Coach Pujol is making noise with his young core by showing what his team can do. He brings in 6’7 freshman Mervin James from Pebblebrook High School. By doing this, he has developed a three-headed scoring machine between him and the second-year studs Christian Agnew and Jamari Blackmon. 

“[Mervin James] had options in the recruiting process,” said Pujol. “He had offers from Chattanooga and Buffalo, but he decided to stick closer to home. We knew he was going to be an impact player coming in, now like anything else he has to transition. The hardest thing for freshmen is not the physicality, it is the transition. He has to lock in and focus.”

The top three scorers on the team are making huge impacts in conference outings with Agnew bringing 16 ppg this season, along with James 10.1 and Blackmon’s 9.4. 

“I think our core guys are Christian Agnew, Jamari Blackmon and Manny Littles,” said Pujol. “Freshman Mervin James has been a pleasant surprise in year one for us. I also think C.J. Brim, our JUCO point guard has been tremendous. Christian Agnew, Jamari and Manny are gonna be your pillars, they are your foundation.”

Manny Littles, another second-year star, is bringing in 11 rebounds per game in conference play. He also is second amongst the league with 9.5 rebounds per game and he is fifth in field goal percentage with 55.2. 

“Manny did not only grow in that area, he was a good rebounder last year,” said Pujol. “He is now the leading rebounder in the league this year. The best thing about Manny is that he has improved his offensive game, it means we can play a little more inside-to-out. Last year, didn’t have that game, he worked his tail off to develop that game for this year. He is tremendous on the boards, but we can’t just rely on him.”

If the Lions stay in that fourth spot, they would host the ASUN tournament at home against a lower-seeded team. This would be the first time that the Lions would host the ASUN tournament in school history.

“We want to position ourselves to control our own destiny,” said Pujol. “We do want to play in the ASUN tournament this year, but we have pushed it up, we want to make it into the top-four. If we are in the top-four that means that we get to host a game here at home in the ASUN tournament. That is where our sights are, now lets see if we can go and get it.”

The Lions have just nine games remaining in their season before the start of postseason play. They have a two-game road trip against NJIT and Jacksonville before heading back to play in Flower’s Hall on Feb. 6 against Lipscomb.