AZUSA, Calif. -- The roster will be mostly unfamiliar, but the surroundings will quickly feel like home for 11 newcomers to the Azusa Pacific men’s basketball team in 2011-12. The Cougars are at home for 11 of their scheduled 14 non-conference games, including Felix Event Center holiday matchups the day before and after Thanksgiving, as well as a set of three contests the week after Christmas.
“I think this team is going to need those early tests,” head coach Justin Leslie said. “With so many new guys, we can’t take anything for granted. It would be naïve and risky for us to assume that we’re going to be great in every aspect of the game right off the bat, and I think we really need to take that time at the start of the season to evaluate what we have and what we need to work on before conference play starts.”
The last time the Cougars hosted so many non-conference home games was over 20 years ago, when the GSAC membership consisted of only seven schools and Azusa Pacific played 12 of 18 non-conference contests at home.
“It wasn’t necessarily our intention to play all those games at home, but that’s just how it worked out this year,” Leslie said. “I actually would have liked a few more local road games with some (NCAA) Division II (teams), but those games simply weren’t available for us. We had to look in some other directions, and we were very fortunate to get quality NAIA programs that will come out here and play us. Those are going to be important games for us to have before we open up GSAC play.”
Prior to a Nov. 29 GSAC-opening trip to Westmont, Azusa Pacific hosts four NAIA opponents in an eight-day stretch, taking on St. Thomas (Fla.) and Westminster (Utah) Nov. 18-19 before matchups with Central Methodist (Mo.) the day before Thanksgiving and Embry-Riddle (Fla.) one day after the holiday. Westminster has advanced to nine of the past 11 NAIA Division I tournaments, while Embry-Riddle is an NAIA Division II power, making 11 national tournament appearances over the past 16 seasons which includes the 2000 national title.
Four days after hosting Embry-Riddle, Azusa Pacific visits Westmont in the Golden State Athletic Conference opener, and the Cougars’ conference home opener comes Dec. 3 against Hope International.
“I look at those first two GSAC games as an important test,” Leslie said. “We’ll have had some quality opponents throughout the month of November with almost a month and a half of practice under our belts. We need to be hitting our stride and making our statement once conference play starts.”
After the Nov. 1 season opener against La Sierra, the next three foes are all NCAA Division II opponents starting with a Nov. 4 home exhibition contest against Alaska-Anchorage, which advanced to the second of last year’s NCAA Division II tournament. The following week, the Cougars are on the road for a Nov. 10 game at Lewis (Ill.), a 2008 NCAA quarterfinalist, followed by a Nov. 12 exhibition matchup with Grand Valley State (Mich.), which advanced to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 2006-10.
“I’m really looking forward to playing these NCAA Division II schools because they’re all going to be very good, Top-25 caliber teams at that level this year,” Leslie said. “Long-term, it’s good for us to have exposure to them, but in terms of this season, they’re really going to test our mettle right off the bat.”
The Cougars host four Canadian institutions in a 10-day stretch around Christmas, with Trinity Western (B.C.) visiting the Felix Event Center on Dec. 21 before Fraser Valley (B.C.) and the Universities of Calgary and Victoria make up three opponents in a four-day period from Dec. 27-30.
The first two GSAC home games after the New Year hits are the highest-profile conference games Azusa Pacific hosts. Biola visits on Jan. 3, and back-to-back road games at Vanguard and Fresno Pacific are followed by the Jan. 14 clash with two-time defending conference champion Concordia. One final non-conference matchup, with the first-year program at Cal State San Marcos on Jan. 26, follows GSAC clashes with San Diego Christian (Jan. 21) and The Master’s (Jan. 24) to give the Cougars three consecutive home games in late January.