PEMBROKE — There’s no hiding in the Peach Belt Conference basketball schedule and Ben Miller knows it.
Entering his eighth year at the helm of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball program, Miller has led the Braves from the bottom of the conference totem pole to a regular in postseason play. Last season UNCP fell short of making the PBC tournament, and a team split evenly with under and upperclassmen is set to take on a grueling slate of games this year that features five teams that made the NCAA tournament last season.
“I love the competition in the Peach Belt,” Miller said. “Year in and year out it is one of the most competitive conferences in the country and it requires you to be ready every night. It’s one reason we set up a challenging non-conference schedule.”
After opening the regular season on the road in the PBC/SAC Challenge against Lenoir-Rhyne and Catawba in Hickory on Nov. 11 and 12, the Braves have three straight at home starting with Wingate on Nov. 16.
In a conference that is one of the toughest for basketball in the country, another tough non-conference schedule is just what the young Braves need. UNCP has stiffened its non-conference schedule from last year with a pair of opponents it will face twice in Winston-Salem State and Barton that, much like the Braves, are capable of making postseason play. UNCP hosts Winston-Salem State on Nov. 19 and Barton on Dec. 31.
“We think it should be like a conference game setup,” Miller said. “All of our non-conference games are in-region opponents and they should be critical for us as far as regional rankings and RPI for postseason berths.
The most critical stretch for the Braves will be the closing stretch of games, which has been a tell-tale sign going into postseason play over the last five seasons. When the Braves have peaked to close out the last five seasons, two of those seasons the teams have closed with eight wins in their last nine games. Those teams went on to play in the NCAA regionals.
The closing run of games will test the mettle of the Braves with road games at Augusta, Lander and Armstrong State along with a regular season finale against Francis Marion on Feb. 22. Those four teams represented the PBC East division in the PBC tournament, while the Braves missed out on conference tournament play for the second time in three seasons.
“Later on in the year we play mostly East division competition and it’s a battle with teams fighting for playoff spots,” Miller said. “You’ve got some natural rivalries in the East with teams like Francis Marion, Augusta, USC Aiken and Lander and I think when you battle for spots in the conference tournaments it raises the importance of the games. That’s why you have to play well in the regular season to get to extend your season.”
The Braves have 10 home PBC games and nine road PBC games which bodes well for a program that has historically played better at home under Miller. The first half of PBC games will feature six at home, starting with Clayton State on Dec. 17.
The Braves kick off the season with an exhibition at home against the All-Army team on Oct. 23, before going to Chapel Hill to take on UNC on Nov. 4 and then at Houston, coached by UNCP alumnus Kelvin Sampson, the following night.
“I appreciate Coach (Roy) Williams letting us come up and play for the fourth time in nine seasons and Coach Sampson for looking out for his alma mater,” Miller said. “It’s a great opportunity to play that level of competition and helps us learn a lot of what we can do and what we need to work on.”
Six NCAA tourney teams on Lady Braves’ schedule
Much like on the men’s side, five women’s teams from the Peach Belt Conference made the NCAA tournament last season and those five, along with another non-conference NCAA team from last season, are scattered along the UNCP women’s basketball team’s schedule.
“It’s always a challenging schedule, but we’ve got a very good year playing against a lot of good regional teams,” UNCP women’s coach John Haskins said.
The Lady Braves will play on the road for their first four contests, that include exhibitions, before its home opener against Wingate on Nov. 27. Wingate, along with five other PBC teams made the NCAA regional last March. Fayetteville State, St. Augustine’s and Mount Olive are three in-region road games for the Lady Braves.
“We’ve got a solid non-conference schedule and we need it to prepare for what it’s like to play in the PBC night in and night out,” Haskins said. “We have a lot of road games to start the year and as we start off conference w have a lot of home games, which I hope can get us off to a good start.”
With six of the first nine conference games at home against teams mostly in the West division, the Lady Braves will closing stretch has road games against three NCAA tournament teams — Francis Marion, Augusta and Lander — that are in UNCP’s division.
“You never know who is going to be good in our league,” Haskins said. “I think you’ve got to be ready to play every week, and if you aren’t you’re going to lose. A lot of games are decided by which team is playing better. … I think we should be good enough to compete in every regular season game.”
Close the season out at home against Francis Marion on Feb. 22 who went to the elite eight last season.
To begin the season, the Lady Braves will play N.C. State in the first basketball game played in the newly renovated Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh on Nov. 4.
“I think it will be pretty cool,” said Haskins of playing in Reynolds Coliseum. “I went to high school in Raleigh and I watched a lot of games and remember watching David Thompson play in there. There’s a lot of history in that arena.”
UNCP senior Jonissa Monley is coming off a third-team all-conference season as a junior. She is one of five seniors on the roster for the Lady Braves.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.