Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The Atlantic Sun has acted as a minor league conference of sorts during this age of conference realignment. A few years ago it was perennial contender Belmont that bolted for the Ohio Valley Conference. This season the league lost two more of its best programs, with last season's champion Mercer as well as East Tennessee State both joining the Southern Conference.
The shuffling has left the A-Sun with just eight teams, one of which stands high above the rest. Florida Gulf Coast burst onto the national spotlight in March of 2013 with an improbable NCAA Tournament run as a No. 15 seed and followed that success up with a share of a league title a season ago. The Eagles are still the league's most talented squad, as they boast three of the league's 10 preseason all-conference honorees, and their quest for another title will be easier than ever with the departure of their top threat Mercer.
Lipscomb and North Florida are clearly a step below FGCU but both have the talent to make a surprise championship run. Lipscomb has shown steady improvement in recent seasons and returns the majority of a roster that can keep up with anyone on the scoreboard. North Florida, which received the only other first-place vote in the preseason coaches poll, also has three players on the all-conference team this preseason.
USC Upstate has a couple of postseason appearances in the last three years and is always a threat to occupy the top of the standings, but losing three quality forwards leaves the Spartans very thin in the frontcourt.
Northern Kentucky has been a member of the A-Sun since the 2012-13 season, but its lengthy transition into Division I is still in process, as it will not become a full D-I member until 2016. The Norse will, however, be eligible to compete in the conference tournament for the first time ever, and the upstart squad that returns their entire roster from a season ago could turn some heads.
The bottom of the standings will likely include Jacksonville, Stetson and Kennesaw State. Jacksonville has been on a slow decline in recent years and will have plenty of new faces this season, including first-year head coach Tony Jasick, who led IUPU-Fort Wayne to a CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament appearance last season. Stetson also endured a large roster turnover a year removed from a sizable decrease in production, and Kennesaw State has a lot to prove after finishing in last place in the league in three consecutive seasons.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Florida Gulf Coast
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Florida Gulf Coast, 2. Lipscomb, 3. North Florida, 4. USC Upstate, 5. Northern Kentucky, 6. Jacksonville, 7. Stetson, 8. Kennesaw State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
FLORIDA GULF COAST: After an unbelievable run to the Sweet 16 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, FGCU lived up to expectations in the regular season during the 2013-14 campaign by claiming a share of the league title at 14-4. However, it fell to Mercer in the conference championship game (68-60) to lose out on its second straight bid to the Big Dance, then it fell flat in the opening round of the NIT against Florida State (58-53). With Mercer gone, the path is even clearer for the Eagles to be the favorites in the A-Sun in Joe Dooley's second season as head coach, especially considering the return of two of the conference's best players, Bernard Thompson (15.1 ppg) and Brett Comer (13.7 ppg, 5.3 apg), the latter clearly established as one of the best passers in the nation, orchestrating the team's famed "Dunk City" persona with highlight- reel alley-oops. Jamail Jones (8.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Filip Cvjeticanin (6.8 ppg) are also valuable assets returning to a squad that shot 46.7 percent from the field a year ago with a +4.7 scoring margin.
LIPSCOMB: The Bison had a three-game improvement last season under first-year head coach Casey Alexander to 15-15 overall, which included a stellar 10-8 mark in the A-Sun, but their season came to an end in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament with an 89-88 double-overtime loss to East Tennessee State. Reason for optimism is high in year two under Alexander thanks to the return of four starters. Martin Smith (15.6 ppg) and J.C. Hampton (14.5 ppg) were both active from 3-point range during the 2013-14 campaign with a combined 150 long-range buckets. Malcolm Smith (13.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Josh Williams (13.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) are both expected to be mainstays in the frontcourt once again. Lipscomb is expected to have a potent offense - it scored 75.9 ppg a season ago - but it'll need to tighten up one of the nation's worst defenses (78.5 ppg).
NORTH FLORIDA: The Ospreys were a middle-of-the-road team in the conference a season ago, finishing up 16-16 overall and 10-8 in league action and were knocked off by USC Upstate in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, 80-74. The squad has waded in mediocrity during Matt Driscoll's first five seasons as head coach (73-87), and if it wants to break free into the top of the standings it'll need to do so behind Dallas Moore (12.5 ppg) and Beau Beech (10.3 ppg). Moore was the conference freshman of the year in 2013-14 and expects to continue to grow, and Beech drained 68 3-pointers at a 39.8 percent clip. Jalen Nesbitt (8.1 ppg), Chris Davenport (7.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Demarcus Daniels (6.2 rpg) are important role players back in the fray. Trent Mackey, who averaged 11.0 ppg at ULM in 2012-13 and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, will be a big boost to the backcourt.
USC UPSTATE: The Spartans finished below .500 in 2012-13 but made their return as one of the A-Sun's best a season ago in Eddie Payne's seventh season as head coach by going 19-15 overall, including 11-7 in the league. Although their hopes for a league championship were dashed in the semifinals with a loss to Mercer (78-75), they were still invited to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament for the second time in three years (losing to Towson in the first round, 63-60). Building upon last season's success will be difficult for Payne's bunch considering the loss of two of the conference's best forwards. Torrey Craig (16.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Ricardo Glenn (13.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg), as well as Jodd Maxley (8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), will be sorely missed in the frontcourt, especially with sophomore Michael Buchanon (4.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg) the most experienced big man left. The return of Ty Greene (14.3 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Fred Miller (7.4 ppg, 3.3 apg) to the perimeter likely won't be enough to get USC Upstate over the hump.
NORTHERN KENTUCKY: Considering the Norse's status as a transitioning Division II squad over the past few seasons, they have performed admirably during their early life as an A-Sun member under coach Dave Bezold, but after a 9-9 conference record in 2012-13, the team regressed last season to 9-21 overall and just 5-13 in league play. NKU, which scored 68.1 ppg while allowing 73.7 a season ago, had a very young team during the 2013-14 campaign, and as a result all 12 players who saw the floor last season are back on the roster this time around, all but assuring an improved squad. Leading the way is guard Jordan Jackson, who enters his senior season (still one of just two seniors) looking to improve upon the 13.5 ppg and 5.0 rpg he put last season. Tyler White (10.8 ppg) shot just 36.3 percent from the field but drained a team-best 49 3- pointers. Jalen Billups (9.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Todd Johnson (8.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg) are also expected to be key contributors yet again. Chad Jackson (6-4, 200), who redshirted last season after transferring from James Madison, hopes to bring depth to the backcourt.
JACKSONVILLE: The Dolphins aren't far removed from being one of the A-Sun's best - they won 18 games or more in four straight seasons from 2007-08 to 2010-11 - but in the three seasons since they have failed to crack .500. They were just 12-18 overall last season (8-10 A-Sun) and lost to Mercer in the first round of the conference tournament, a showing that prompted a coaching change. After nine years under Cliff Warren, Jacksonville has moved on to Jasick, who led IPFW to a 25-win campaign a season ago. Jasick's squad will revolve around Jarvis Haywood, who scored 16.6 ppg on 50.9 percent field goal shooting as a sophomore, but the four other starters from the 2013-14 squad have all graduated. Fresh blood might be a good thing for a team that played some of the worst defense in Division I, allowing 79.5 ppg.
STETSON: After finishing just a game below .500 during the 2012-13 season, the Hatters not only failed to improve upon that success but endured a considerable eight-win decrease in the first season under the tutelage of Corey Williams, as they finished just a mere 7-24 overall, including 5-13 in league play. The hiccup for Williams, who previously spent six season as an assistant at Florida State, is hopefully short lived. The team will have to overcome the loss of three starters - Willie Green (13.5 ppg), Raymone Andrews (9.0 ppg) and Aaron Graham (7.8 ppg) - but a change in chemistry isn't always a bad thing for a team that struggled so much. Stetson will have some stability to rely on in the frontcourt with the return of Kentwan Smith (9.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Brian Pegg (8.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg), with the latter earning a spot on the A-Sun All-Freshman team. Other returnees include Glenn Baral (2.5 ppg), B.J. Glasford (3.4 ppg) and Kyle Sikora (2.4 ppg), meaning the opportunity to make an early contribution will be there for the taking for a few of the seven incoming freshmen to make their mark.
KENNESAW STATE: The Owls won the same amount of games in 2013-14 as they did in the previous two seasons combined. Unfortunately they were still the league bottom dwellers, finishing up 3-15 in conference action and a mere 6-25 overall. Jimmy Lallathin took over the squad on an interim basis midway through last season following the firing of Lewis Preston and now takes over the head-coaching gig full-time. Lallathin will have a chance to grow with the young squad that returns nine letterwinners to the fold, most notably leading scorer Delbert Love (12.6 ppg, 65 3-pointers). Orlando Coleman (9.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Nate Rucker (9.1 ppg) are solid frontcourt pieces, with both shooting greater than 51 percent from the floor a year ago. Kendrick Ray (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) and Damien Wilson (6-7, 190) will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact after transferring from Quinnipiac and Memphis, respectively.