Atlantic Sun Conference Preview
by Amanda Breedlove
The 2002-2003 men’s basketball season is less than two weeks away and the 12 teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference are getting ready for another exciting five-month stretch of competitive college basketball. Many teams are getting revved-up for regular-season play with preseason exhibitions in the days leading up to this year’s kickoff. Georgia State, Mercer and Florida Atlantic have already played in exhibitions, while more teams across the conference have exhibitions scheduled for this week.
The A-Sun will start the new season off a little reorganized after adding a team to the conference.
The 12-member conference is now divided into two divisions, with six teams competing in the North Division and six teams in the South. Belmont, Campbell, Gardner-Webb, Georgia State, Jacksonville State and Samford will be duking it out in the North, while UCF, Florida Atlantic, Troy State, Stetson, Mercer and Jacksonville compete in the South Division.
Because of NCAA rules, new A-Sun team Gardner-Webb will not be allowed to participate in the conference tournament or qualify for the NCAA tournament this season, and only the top eight teams in the Atlantic Sun will compete in the 2002-2003 conference championship. This year’s tournament will be hosted by Georgia State on March 6-8 in Atlanta.
1. Georgia State Panthers
Georgia State, under the guidance of legendary head coach Lefty Driesell, is heavily favored to win not only the regular season and its division, but also the A-Sun tournament to earn a chance to “dance”. The Georgia State Panthers, who were 20-11 overall and finished tied for first with a 14-6 conference record last season, look strong entering the season, despite losing the 2001-2002 A-Sun Player of the Year, Thomas Terrell. Looking past the fact that they have the fourth all-time winningest coach in the NCAA to guide them, the Panthers have Lamont McIntosh and Nate Williams, both returning starters who averaged 12.2 points per game last season. McIntosh has also been selected as the Atlantic Sun Preseason Player-of-the-Year by league coaches. In addition, Georgia State also returns seniors Leroy Davis and Darryl Cooper, who were both solid last season both as starters and off the bench. The team will rely on its deep, experienced bench, with seven juniors and only one freshman completing the roster.
2. Samford Bulldogs
Samford also tied for fourth place last year, with a 12-8 A-Sun mark and a 15-14 overall showing. The Bulldogs spend the entire month of December on the road before opening conference play against Belmont at home on Jan. 4. Junior Phillip Ramelli and senior Cornell Felton will be the top returning scorers for Samford as the Bulldogs try to overcome a disappointing first-round loss in the conference championship last season, to UCF. Samford and UCF will meet once, at UCF on Feb. 1.
3. Belmont Bruins
Belmont also tied for seventh place last season (11-17 overall, 8-12 A-Sun), but the Bruins are projected to move up to third place this season. They lost only one starter, and all eyes will be on Adam Sonn, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound senior who was first-team all-conference and averaged a team-high 18.8 points per game and 10.3 rebounds last season. Sonn was also picked to be a part of the preseason all-conference team.
4. Jacksonville State Gamecocks
The Gamecocks of Jacksonville State made it to the semi-finals in the tournament last season, despite finishing tied for seventh place (13-16 overall, 8-12 A-Sun). JSU should be confident as its top three scorers return, including “Poomie” Richardson, who scored a team-best 14.4 points per game last season, Omar Barlett (14.2 ppg) and Jay Heard (12.1 ppg). The Gamecocks will play Lipscomb University twice this season, which will join the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2003-2004.
5. Campbell Camels
Campbell, 8-19 overall and 6-14 in the conference last season, failed to qualify for the tournament as they finished at No. 10 in the Atlantic Sun. This season, the Camels compete without the player they have relied on the past four years, Adam Fellers (14.5 ppg last season). They will, however, look to senior Jonte Edwards to fill his shoes, who led the team last season, averaging 14.9 points per game and had a second-best 5.8 rebounds per game. Edwards will receive help from seniors Brooks Lee and Solomon Yearby. Lee was at or near the top of the conference in assists all last season, finishing with a 141 in 2001-2002.
6. Gardner-Webb Bulldogs
Gardner-Webb competes in its first season as a member of the Atlantic Sun conference and will not be allowed to qualify for the Atlantic Sun tournament or the NCAA tournament this year. However, the Bulldogs will have a chance to size up the competition as they begin conference play on Jan. 4 at Georgia State. Gardner-Webb could surprise a few teams, as it went a strong 23-9 overall last season. The Bulldogs will have to make the most of their first season in the conference without most of last season’s starters, however, and a very young team.
1. Jacksonville Dolphins
Jacksonville, under the guidance of fifth-year head coach Hugh Durham, is expected to win the South Division. The Dolphins finished tied for 4th in the A-Sun last season, going 18-12 overall and 12-8 in the conference. Their roster for the upcoming year is packed with seniors and starters, including last season’s leading scorers, Calvin Warner (13.7 ppg) and Kevin Sheppard (13.5 ppg). Both Warner and Sheppard were chosen to be on the 2002-2003 Preseason Conference Team.
2. Florida Atlantic Owls
The Owls of Florida Atlantic will have a tough time defending their conference title against the favored Panthers. They beat the Panthers by one point, 76-75, in the championship game last season, despite finishing No. 3 in the A-Sun during the regular season with a 13-7 conference mark and a 19-12 overall record. Without a doubt, Georgia State will be seeking redemption. The two teams will meet for the first time on Jan. 23 at Georgia State. The Owls return 6-foot-2 junior guard Jeff Cowans, their second-leading scorer from last season, as well as junior Earnest Crumbley, a dangerous threat off the bench who could be a starter this year. FAU will also benefit from the experience of its players, which boasts four juniors and four seniors, including 7-foot, 245-pound center Nick Neumann. The team will begin conference play on Jan. 4 at UCF.
3. Mercer Bears
Mercer boasts Preseason All-Conference selection Scott Emerson. The Bears anxiously await Emerson’s return, who after averaging 16.0 points per game and earning a first-team all-conference pick in his sophomore year, had to sit out most of last season with an injury. A bonus is Aleem Muhammad, who as the Bears’ leading scorer, posted an average of 17.2 points per game last season. Mercer will try to overcome the disappointment of the previous year, when it finished at No. 11 in the conference with a 4-16 A-Sun record.
4. Troy State Trojans
Troy State could continue to be a threat as the 2002-2003 season comes together. The Trojans had a disappointing showing at last year’s tournament, losing 69-62 in the first round to Jacksonville State, despite tying Georgia State for first place in the conference with a 14-6 record and finishing 18-10 overall. This season, Troy State will sorely miss the presence of Lamayn Wilson, who as its leading scorer, poured in an average of 20.1 points per game last season. The team will look to the leadership of seniors Ben Fletcher and Lacedrick Pettway to pull them through their tough schedule. It will be interesting to see if the Trojans can parallel last season, or if they fall victim to a “re-building year”.
5. Central Florida Golden Knights
Look for the University of Central Florida to be a tough competitor this year also. UCF tied Samford and Jacksonville for fourth place at the end of last season, going 17-12 overall and 12-8 in Atlantic Sun play. The team will be playing a tough season, with a lot of road trips, including trips to play a season-opener against Navy on Nov. 22, also traveling to Chicago State on Dec. 19 and Kansas State on Jan. 6. The Golden Knights will look to prove themselves against Jacksonville on Jan. 20, and make the trip to GSU on Jan. 25. They will call on four seniors on to step up to the task, including Ray Abellard, who scored an average of 13.0 points per game in 2002 and had a
team-best .462 3-point field goal percentage.
6. Stetson Hatters
Stetson failed to qualify for the championship tournament last season and finished its season in 9th place (10-16, 7-13 A-Sun). The Hatters will look to step up in 2002-2003 with returning starters Ravii Givens and Derrick DeWitt.
Adam Sonn – Belmont
Lamont McIntosh – Georgia State
Nate Williams – Georgia State
Calvin Warner – Jacksonville
Ray Abellard – UCF
Adam Sonn – Belmont
Look for some tough competition in the Atlantic Sun as the conference expands to division play and many teams look to unseat Georgia State from its high-standing place at the top of the A-Sun. It’s going to be an exciting season!