The Atlantic Sun Conference has been Belmont's plaything for most of the past seven years. Six of those seasons ended with either a regular-season or tournament title for the Bruins, and five saw Belmont carry the league's banner into the NCAA tournament.
Now, the Bruins are in the Ohio Valley and the rest of the A-Sun is alternately bemoaning the damage to the league's national profile and joining in rousing choruses of "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead."
Every school in a conference with one dominant program (take a bow, Big West) knows the benefit of having a member with an elevated profile, but that benefit is often outweighed by the sheer difficulty of toppling the resident Goliath. Now, the A-Sun moves into a more balanced future, but one where the 10 remaining members have to create their own relevance.
The damage to the league's national profile drops the ASC to No. 27 on TBI's Conference Calling rankings. More after the jump.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH:
--Thanks to the proliferation of new postseason tournaments, four teams got to end their seasons with wins, and Mercer was one of those. The CIT champions return four starters from the league's top defensive team and look prepared to take Belmont's mantle as A-Sun kings.
Guard Langston Hall is generating conference POY buzz after making the All-A-Sun first team last year. Hall stepped up all phases in the CIT, storming to the tournament MVP award. Fifth in the league in field-goal attempts last season, Hall still managed to sit fourth in assists and seventh in A/T ratio. The Bears' offense runs through him, and coach Bob Hoffman can trust that Hall makes the right decisions with its direction.
Forward Jakob Gollon may be the perfect complement to a flamboyant guard like Hall. Gollon is a skilled point forward (3.3 APG last season, second on the team) who ranked among the top 80 free-throw shooters in America last year. He finished in the A-Sun's top 10 in rebounds, assists and steals while finding time to score 10.5 PPG. He's one of the league's most versatile players.
The other frontcourt starters, juniors Bud Thomas and Daniel Coursey, are both reliable inside scorers and defenders. Coursey's eFG% and TS% both topped 62 percent, and he blocked nearly twice as many shots as any other ASC player last year. His .135 block percentage ranked sixth nationally, fractions of a point behind Anthony Davis. Thomas was likewise among the league's 10 most efficient scorers and ranked 12th with 46 steals.
Senior guard Travis Smith should take the starting spot alongside Hall. Smith never started a game last season, but he was a tremendous offensive spark off the bench. His .489/.429/.821 shooting percentages made him a dangerous scorer from anywhere on the court. Junior Monty Brown (6'11", 250) will be a useful backup to Coursey. Brown led the team with 13 points in a win over Georgia Tech last December.
--Upstate returns nearly all the production from a team that excelled on the glass and in forcing turnovers. The Spartans defeated Kent State in the first round of the CIT by forcing 25 turnovers, and they're set to inflict even more torment on A-Sun offenses.
Forward Torrey Craig has won Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year in his first two seasons, and the only remaining hurdle for him to clear is an NCAA tournament game. One of America's most prolific shooters, Craig had only five games of less than 10 points last season. One of those, though, was the last one, Upstate's loss to Old Dominion in the CIT's second round. For a man who broke 20 against Ohio State and South Carolina, that was a bitter way to end the season.
Upstate's second straight Freshman of the Year was guard Ty Greene, a dangerous three-point shooter and defensive ballhawk. Greene's 2.4 APG led the team, for what it's worth on a team where four other players averaged at least 1.5.
Guards Adrian Rodgers and Mario Blessing rotate in alongside Greene. Rodgers averaged about 11 PPG in Upstate's final six games last season.
Forwards Ricardo Glenn and Jodd Maxey, both 6'8", provide sturdy inside scoring and rebounding. Glenn was one of America's most dominant offensive rebounders, ranking third in the country with a .182 OR%.
Coach Eddie Payne also added some good length in his recruiting class, bringing in 6'10" Michael Buchanan from Las Vegas and 6'8" Georgia native Zach Lillie. None of the major contributors on this team are seniors.
--FGC is another program getting the entire band back together for a run at the first post-Belmont title. All five starters and the top bench scorer are Eagles set to take flight, and a BCS conference newcomer could also make a big impact.
First, the guys who are back. Guards Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson are consistent double-figure scorers who both work the glass like forwards. Neither man beats his team with bad shots, and Thompson is also one of the A-Sun's top ballhawks (third in SPG last season).
Point guard Brett Comer took the conference's assist crown as a freshman, finishing second nationally among freshmen. He'll have the Eagles offense humming if he can trim a few of last season's 4.2 turnovers per game. Backup shooting guard Christophe Varidel was a big part of the team's dominant three-point shooting attack (four of the league's 11 most accurate shooters), leading the team with 60 made bombs. Freshman Dajuan Graf, rated one of the nation's top 50 at his position by ESPN, may see some early minutes, perhaps alongside Comer.
Up front, 6'8" forwards Chase Fieler and Eddie Murray are reliable inside scorers and shot-blockers, but are routinely beaten to rebounds by their own guards. Croatian sophomore Filip Cvjeticanin (6'9", 212) was the league's second-most accurate three-point shooter and racked 12 double-figure scoring games off the bench.
Iowa State transfer Eric McKnight, a 6'9" sophomore, will likely take a starting position away from Fieler or Murray. McKnight saw very limited time in Ames, playing only 54 minutes, but his athletic ability should make him a major player in the A-Sun. Freshman Leonard Livingston adds more length at 6'10", but will need to bulk up his 180-pound frame even to compete in this league.
Several other teams can light it up from outside the arc, so Gulf Coast will need to tighten up its perimeter defense, which allowed the league's second-best three-point percentage to opponents. If the Eagles are harder to shoot over, the former Division II power might get a shot in the Division I tournament.
--The projected top half of the A-Sun is projected that way primarily because they kept cohesive rosters together. North Florida is the same way, losing only yeoman forward Matt Sauey from last year's first-ever Division I .500 team.
Swingman Jerron Granberry sets the tone with his fearless shooting and sturdy defense. He's not a gambler on defense, as evidenced by his low totals of 22 steals and 52 fouls from last season. Granberry simply stays in his man's shirt with his size against guards and his quickness against forwards.
Forwards Andy Diaz and Travis Wallace provide the inside scoring and rebounding. Wallace actually led the team in scoring by 11 points over Granberry, and was also one of the A-Sun's most efficient rebounders. For all that, he still has yet to start a game in a UNF uniform.
Guard Parker Smith adds backcourt scoring support for Granberry. Smith, like Granberry, will shoot from anywhere at any time, and is more efficient at it, recording a .580 eFG% last season and leading the league in free throw percentage. Point guard Will Wilson could very easily see freshman Ray Rodriguez step in and take his job.
Look for 6'8" freshman swingman Beau Beech to see a few minutes during the season. Beech was a 24-and-10 player his senior year in high school. Impressive figures, although they could be taken with a grain of salt since he was the coach's kid.
--Stop me if you've heard this one: Stetson brings back nearly everyone from last year's team, although the Hatters didn't have the same success as in-state rivals UNF or FGCU. The problem lay in the worst defense and ballhandling in the Atlantic Sun. The same cast of characters may lead to the same malaise in the standings.
A trio of double-figure scorers return, led by all-conference center Adam Pegg. The 6'9" 260-pounder can bang inside and occasionally step outside the arc to score. He's neither an overwhelming rebounder or feared shot-blocker, but he can certainly score.
Guards Chris Perez and Aaron Graham both topped 12 PPG last season, and third guard Joel Naburgs was good for nine points and five boards per game. Graham and Naburgs alternate point guard responsibilities and like to live outside the arc. Perez will attack the basket, and would be a 15-PPG scorer if he could convert more than 62 percent of his free throws.
Lanky forward Willie Green (6'7", 195) is deceptively strong on the glass and was one of the league's top shot-blockers last season.
The four-man freshman class, including Adam Pegg's little brother Brian, spent the entire summer on campus working with the team. Pegg the younger and 6'6" Nigerian leaper (40-inch vertical) Leke Solanke could see substantial playing time this season.
--The train of clubs returning familiar casts comes to a screeching halt with Lipscomb. The Bisons had nine different players start games last season, and only three return. Those three combined for 37 out of a possible 155 starts.
Guard Deonte Alexander is the top returnee, and he had his moments last season. Alexander went for 21 against Texas Tech and 27 against Stetson, although just about everyone scored on Stetson last year. Still, his .449 eFG% suggests that this is not the man coach Scott Sanderson wants monopolizing the ball.
Enter freshman swingman John Ross Glover. The 6'4" Jackson, Tenn. product is a Parade All-American who dropped almost 31 PPG in his senior year of high school. Strong enough to finish inside and scrap for putbacks, Glover is also working on his outside touch, which largely went unused in his prep career. He should probably start from day one on this Lipscomb squad.
Sophomore forward Malcolm Smith loves to crash the glass and draw contact. His .837 FTA/FGA ratio ranked fourth in the country. Twin brother Martin can be an effective outside shooter, making better than 40 percent from deep last season.
Sanderson was able to recruit some size after not having much available last year. Juco forward Oscar Garcia (6'8", 225) will need to be sturdy inside. 6'9" Memphis product Charles Smith (no relation, far as we know) will need to bulk up a bit. Also, 6'10", 280-pound freshman Stephen Hurt is back to try again after being cut from last season's roster.
Glover will need to dominate early and the Smith twins will need to adapt to primary roles. If they don't, Sanderson's seat could start getting hot, especially if the next-door neighbors get off to a fast start in the OVC.
--Like Lipscomb, ETSU will have to rediscover who its players are. Three double-figure scorers, who were also the team's top three rebounders, are gone from a team that was already eighth in scoring and seventh on the glass in the A-Sun last year. Offense will be at a premium in Johnson City.
Returning guards Marcus Dubose and Sheldon Cooley offer hope. Cooley is an improving scorer who also led the conference in steals last season. His eFG% leaped from 42 to 49 percent last season, and another sight improvement could see him contend for All-A-Sun honors.
Dubose likes to take the outside shot, but that shouldn't be confused with saying he makes outside shots (28 percent from three). Late in the season, he began to take over, averaging over 15 PPG in the Bucs' last seven games. He may need to sustain that form all season for ETSU to climb the table.
Freshman Petey McClain should get a shot at the point guard position. The speedy Alabama native can score off the dribble, but like his senior teammates, his shot can be erratic. Senior Jarvis Jones may be able to contribute outside shooting, as he made 36 percent from distance last year.
Juco swingman Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard appears to be an odd case. A 6'5" 250-pounder with a jump shot, KGG even played some point guard at Roane State CC en route to being named Tennessee's Juco Player of the Year. If all of his skills translate quickly to the A-Sun, he'll be a difficult matchup, possibly capable of playing four positions.
What passes for height on Murry Bartow's roster consists of 6'8" senior Lukas Poderis and 6'7" sophomore Josh Walton. Poderis can be a good rebounder, especially on the offensive end, and he's a decent shot-blocker who swatted one per game last season. Walton saw only 92 minutes last season, but showed flashes of being a disruptive defender. 21 of his minutes came in the second meeting with Lipscomb, and in that time, Walton recorded three rebounds, four steals and three blocks. He's athletic enough that he can make life difficult for opponents if he gets the chance.
Another 6'7" player, Juco All-American Hunter Harris (Nashville, Tenn.) carded 18 and 11 a night for Volunteer State CC.
There are a lot of job openings on the court for ETSU, but most of the candidates are unproven. If some of the newcomers adapt quickly to college basketball, the Bucs could make a power move. If not, their ship will sink fast.
--The Dolphins thought they at least had their point guard spot on lock until leading scorer Aloys Cabell decided to transfer. Three others had already bolted, along with three who graduated, so forgive coach Cliff Warren if he feels like he's been caught in a tuna net.
Guards Keith McDougald and Russell Powell, along with forward Glenn Powell (no relation), are the only rotation players returning. Glenn provides strong rebounding and inside scoring, but also offers some truly foul foul shooting (42 percent last season, down from a decent 66 as a sophomore). Russell is a steady playmaker, averaging four assists per game and 2.2 dimes for every turnover.
McDougald will have to improve his shooting a bit (37 percent from the floor, 34 from deep), since he'll be relied on to spread the defense. ESPN top-50 shooting guard Jarvis Haywood isn't a true long-range threat yet, but he can penetrate and finish.
Utah transfer Javon Dawson was declared immediately eligible, and his 6'6", 260-pound size will come in handy. Dawson was a decent rebounder in his limited Utah minutes, and he'll be his new team's resident beef.
Forward Dylan Fritsch was a 37% deep shooter at Otero JC, and his stroke will likely be on display immediately. Freshman Tyler Alderman, at 6'9", is the only man on this roster taller than 6'7". Whether he'll be a factor early is highly questionable.
--Something's wrong with a program when it has one of its conference's five best players and can only win three games, including getting goose-egged in the league. Kennesaw State, thusly, appears to have something wrong with it.
Senior Markeith Cummings is a 6'6", 240-pound guard. Most A-Sun teams can barely find centers his size. A guy who does everything fairly well, Cummings seemed to buckle at times under the strain of carrying his team. The Owls played a non-conference slate that included dates with Wisconsin, Missouri, St. Mary's and Ohio, and given that caliber of non-league competition, one would expect that Cummings' numbers would climb a bit once conference play arrived. They stayed almost precisely the same, so a player who should be dominant in his league is merely a very good player in his league.
Sophomore guard Delbert Love should be a capable sidekick to Cummings after a season that saw him narrowly miss out on A-Sun Freshman of the Year honors. Love was one of the A-Sun's top steals men and played a solid January game against Charlotte, scoring 26 points.
Senior forward Aaron Anderson led the conference at nine rebounds per game, nearly a full third of the team's per-game average. Seriously, the Owls sported the league's leading rebounder, but finished dead last in rebounding in its conference anyway.
The rest of the team's productivity may have to come from new faces on campus. Forwards Jordan Montgomery and Nigel Pruitt and guard Myles Hamilton, all two-star ESPN recruits, should all see immediate time. Pruitt is touted as a potential defensive ace. Speedy point guard Yonel Brown could also start next to Love.
If Lewis Preston's first full recruiting class can't win more than three games, he could be in trouble after only two seasons.
--The Norse return only four players who averaged 10 minutes per game last season, and it's perfectly fair to expect their production to suffer in the team's first Division I season.
Guards Ethan Faulkner and Chad Jackson were both playmakers averaging over 3.6 APG and shooting better than 50% from the floor. Swingman Eshaunte Jones returns for his second season. He's the top returning scorer for EKU at 10.7 PPG, knocking down 44 percent from long range. Jackson and Jones are the two players on the roster with prior Division I experience, Jones at Nebraska and Jackson at James Madison.
Forwards Ernest Watson and Jalen Billups are the only other returnees. Billups, at 6'6" and 225 pounds, is the biggest player of experience on the roster and used his size to rip down more than 10 rebounds per 40 minutes and shoot 65 percent from the floor. Watson's rebounding average was similar and he recorded 29 steals in 30 games.
By necessity, NKU has an enormous freshman class coming in. Ohio twins Jacob and Justin Rossi, both 6'8", formed a potent inside-outside duo in high school, with Justin draining 44 percent of his threes and Jacob averaging nearly a double-double. Forward Jack Flournoy was recruited by West Virginia, Marshall and Ohio before tearing an ACL.
A pair of All-State guards also join: 6'3" Tyler White of Lima, Ohio and 5'9" Todd Johnson of Elkhart, Ind.
NKU has a young team, with three seniors and two juniors, but the transition to Division I will be a shock to the system for even many of the veterans. After trading Belmont for NKU, the A-Sun will understand how the Reds felt a couple of years after dealing Frank Robinson.
In this section: each team's top non-conference game, weighted for visibility and possibility of a win.
East Tennessee State: Jan. 2 vs. VCU
--An A-Sun school getting an Atlantic 10 opponent with recent Final Four buzz is a big score.
Florida Gulf Coast: Nov. 13 vs. Miami
--Solid team coming back, but the Hurricanes are getting ACC contender buzz. Should be a big home draw for the Eagles.
Jacksonville: Dec. 7 at South Carolina
--Seems like the Gamecocks have been in this section of nearly every CC preview so far. Shows the kind of faith we have in SC this season.
Kennesaw State: Dec. 16 vs. Charlotte
--Not nearly the buzz of ETSU hosting VCU, but it's still an A-10 opponent on an A-Sun court. If KSU was expected to contend, this would be an upset alert moment.
Lipscomb: Nov. 26 vs. Murray State
--The Bisons are still engaging Belmont twice a year in the Battle of the Boulevard, but bringing in the other OVC colossus gives a Nashville crowd another chance to see Isaiah Canaan play.
Mercer: Dec. 18 at Georgia
--The Bears want to score another big in-state upset after knocking off Tech last season.
North Florida: Nov. 14 at Savannah State
--Minor-conference contenders facing off > curbstompings at Kansas State, Florida State or Pitt.
Northern Kentucky: Nov. 15 vs. Tulsa (NUCDF Challenge, San Diego)
--The Norse don't have a single non-league home game, so this tournament will have to do. NKU gets a firsthand look at Danny Manning's coaching style.
Stetson: Nov. 26 vs. South Florida
--Home game against an NCAA tournament team should draw, even if USF's lockdown defense and plodding offense won't make for a pretty game.
USC Upstate: Nov. 9 at Saint Louis
--The Spartans get the first look at the Billikens as coached by Jim Crews.
|Player of the Year Torrey Craig.|
F Torrey Craig, USC Upstate (6'6", 200, Jr.)
--Not a huge player, but he plays bigger than anyone in the league. A lock for Player of the Year unless something odd happens.
G Markeith Cummings, Kennesaw State (6'7", 230, Sr.)
--Big-time scorer, but it'll take a little something more to lift Kennesaw up the standings.
F Ricardo Glenn, USC Upstate (6'8", 246, Jr.)
--The lane is Glenn's office. He and Craig should once again make Upstate the league's most effective rebounding team.
G Langston Hall, Mercer (6'4", 180, Jr.)
--Hall could be the league's best point guard if he improves his shot selection.
C Adam Pegg, Stetson (6'9", 260, Sr.)
--At his size, he should be more assertive on the glass. If he gets that way, he'll easily be the league's best big man.
ALL-A-SUN SECOND TEAM
G Sheldon Cooley, East Tennessee State (6'3", 180, Sr.)
--The best option ETSU has now. He can turn defense into offense very quickly.
F Daniel Coursey, Mercer (6'10", 220, Jr.)
--The biggest force on the league's best defense.
F Jakob Gollon, Mercer (6'6", 200, Jr.)
--Gollon is the best partner a guy named Hall has had this side of John Oates. Without one or the other, the Mercer offense would stall.
G Ty Greene, USC Upstate (6'2", 180, Soph.)
--Could very easily give Upstate three first-teamers.
F Travis Wallace, North Florida (6'6", 230, Jr.)
--His next start will be his first, but he's too efficient to merely be the spark off the bench.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Torrey Craig, USC Upstate
COACH OF THE YEAR: Andy Enfield, Florida Gulf Coast
--Enfield could double the Eagles' wins in the span of two years if he gets his rotation in place quickly.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: John Ross Glover, Lipscomb
--Unless some of the Bisons' returning players suddenly become dominant scorers, Glover is the most versatile offensive player on the roster. He could be one of the league's top 10 scorers from his first game.