by Benny Benton
WILSON, N.C. – Its October 27 exhibition game against defending NCAA Division I national champion University of North Carolina is just the first of many challenges on the Barton College men's basketball schedule for 2017-18.
The lineup released Wednesday includes six games against 2017 NCAA Division II Tournament participants, eight games against teams that won or shared a league divisional title, and nine games against opponents that won 20 or more games a year ago.
"Our non-conference schedule is by far the toughest we've ever played here at Barton" said Ron Lievense, who is entering his 22nd season as head coach of the Bulldogs. "We're playing some of the top teams in the Peach Belt Conference as well as the best teams in the CIAA (Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association). It's who we could get to play us. We'd like to play some other teams, but some won't play us. So we'll play the ones that will."
The challenge begins right out of the gate, as the Bulldogs will host their annual 45-Second Classic on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10 and 11 at Wilson Gymnasium. For the second straight year, Barton and fellow Conference Carolinas member University of Mount Olive will take turns playing Peach Belt Conference members Augusta University and Young Harris College.
Young Harris, which Barton will play in the season-opener, was 17-11 a year ago. Augusta, which BC will face the following afternoon, was co-champion of the PBC's East Division and was an NCAA Tournament participant at 24-8.
"We started the 45-Second Classic in honor of our guys winning the national title (ten years ago), so that we can always remember that great national championship," Lievense said. "What we've tried to do with that tournament is always bring in the best teams we can, and when you bring in Augusta and Young Harris, you're bringing in two of the best teams around. That's what we try to bring in for the people of Wilson and fans of Barton College, so they can experience a season-opening tournament that's among the best in the country."
The next weekend, November 17 and 18, Barton will take part in Mount Olive's long-time tournament, the Pickle Classic, where the Bulldogs will face CIAA members Virginia Union University and St. Augustine's University. Virginia Union was co-champion of the CIAA's North Division and an NCAA Tournament participant at 22-7.
Following UMO's tournament, Barton will visit UNC Pembroke on November 21 to face the Braves, which went 24-8 last season and earned the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional. UNCP will make a return trip to Wilson on December 14, Barton's final home game before the holiday break.
Barton's non-conference slate also includes games with CIAA members Virginia State University (22-6 a year ago), Shaw University (South Division champions) and Elizabeth City State University, as well as a road matchup with South Atlantic Conference member Tusculum College.
With the departure of Pfeiffer University to the NCAA Division III ranks, Barton will now face an 18-game Conference Carolinas slate.
The Bulldogs open league play on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at home against Belmont Abbey College, the start of a four-game home stretch, three of them league contests.
Barton will have another four-game home stretch to open the new calendar year that begins with Virginia State and ends with rival UMO on January 10. The middle two games in that stretch are contests on back-to-back days against Lees-McRae College and King University, something Barton will have to go on the road and do in late January.
"Our conference travel is extremely difficult," Lievense said. "We've got some travel games given to us by the league office that will be a challenge for us, some back-to-backs and so forth. So the travel will be tough. But we have a tough team, and I'm looking forward to continuing to grow that toughness. We don't have any senior leadership, so we're going to have to continue to grow each day into this schedule that we're playing."
Barton won't see defending regular-season co-champion and league tournament winner Limestone College for the first time until late in the season, a January 31 meeting in Wilson. Barton will play its final regular-season home game three days later against Southern Wesleyan University, then close out the schedule with a four-game road stretch that includes the return meeting against Limestone in Gaffney, S.C., on February 17 and the season-finale at Mount Olive on February 23.
The 2018 Conference Carolinas Tournament will begin with quarterfinal matchups on Tuesday, Feb. 27. Barton has qualified for the league tourney in each of Lievense's previous 21 seasons at the helm, a streak the Bulldogs hope to extend this season.