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Atlantic Sun Conference Preview

November 13, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Sun Conference Preview

by Ashley Burns

For the fourth straight year the Panthers of Georgia State are predicted to clean up in the A-Sun Conference. Troy State is expected to finish close behind GSU, however the Trojans will likely not repeat their dynamic performance in last season’s A-Sun tournament. The Panthers and Trojans should provide an exciting season as they will only have Mercer to worry about as their third strongest conference foe.

However, as is the unpredictability of the A-Sun, there are other young teams waiting in the wings to provide a world of upset. While Belmont and UCF are typically average at best, the Bruins and Knights both have potentially dangerous teams, due in part to their recent junior college additions.

Rounding out the A-Sun competition is a group of teams that have never been able to find a successful niche within the conference. Some of the teams have seen success, while others have never been able to climb out of the cellar. The losses off Samford and Jacksonville State has somewhat depleted the depth of competition in the conference, while the addition of Lipscomb has merely given teams like Campbell and Gardner-Webb some room to breathe at the bottom.

1. Georgia State Panthers – (14-15, 8-8)

The Panthers’ season hopes are hanging on the play of returning standouts Lamont McIntosh and Nate Williams. Both players were a big part of GSU’s winning equation, and their 2002-03 All-Tournament status helped guide them to the semifinals. While the Panthers were prematurely sent home by Troy State, the situation is highly unlikely to repeat.

A mid-season coaching change might have been partially to blame for the Panthers’ tournament demise last season, as Michael Perry took over the legendary “Lefty” Driesell. GSU’s outstanding depth will be tough to beat this season, though. McIntosh and Williams are only two of the Panthers’ strong scoring threats. Senior Rheo Logan and junior Sylvester Morgan give GSU two strong big men to back up their stars, while guards D’Andre McGrew and Daniel Towns add strong range and an even better presence under the basket.

2. Troy State – (26-6, 14-2)

Head coach Don Maestri is hoping to lead his Trojans to the same success they saw last season, when they won the 2002-03 A-Sun Tournament championship. While they lose last season’s leading scorer Ben Fletcher, the Trojans return two key players from their championship campaign. Seniors Greg Davis and Rob Lewin will act as one of the most dangerous guard/forward combinations in the A-Sun as both players averaged over 11 points per game last season. Lewin, picked as an A-Sun All-Conference Preseason standout, was a major presence on the boards as he pulled down 258 total rebounds last year.

TSU increased their depth and size in the off-season by throwing junior forward Jerome Stamper into the mix. Guards Zavier Mathis and Herbert Evans will need to step up and provide some help from behind the arch if TSU wishes to repeat and upend GSU.

3. Mercer – (23-6, 14-2)

While the loss of senior guard Aleem Muhammed will hurt the Bears’ offensive production, senior Scott Emerson is poised to have a monster season. Emerson, tabbed as the A-Sun Preseason Player-of-the-Year, averaged 15.1 points per game last season and should only increase his offensive and defensive numbers this year against the reduced A-Sun competition.

Head coach Mark Slonaker is hoping to take his squad to its first NCAA tournament appearance since the 1984-85 season. However in order to do so, he’ll need plenty of help from his young team. Emerson will depend heavily upon his own brother Will Emerson and senior Wesley Duke. Duke has been injury prone throughout his career, however he made a strong comeback last year, averaging just under 10 points per game. Senior Demar Wilson must step up and provide some leadership to this team if the Bears wish to quiet the critics who believe this is merely the third best team in the A-Sun.

4. UCF – (21-11, 11-5)

Head coach Kirk Speraw is facing a monumental challenge this season, as he is depending on the entire team to step up and fill the shoes of the departed Marius Boyd and Ray Abellard. The Golden Knights surprised many last season as they barely fell from the top of the regular season standings and marched through the A-Sun tournament, eventually losing in the finals to Troy State.

UCF will lean on junior college transfers Gary Johnson and Kingsley Edwards, as well as the leadership of returning senior Dexter Lyons. The Knights have only five seniors on their entire roster, and will look to gain some quick support from their deep bench.

5. Belmont – (17-12, 12-4)

The Bruins shocked many last season as they walked away with the A-Sun North division title. Head coach Rick Byrd leads a young Belmont team this year, as the Bruins will field only three seniors. Adam Mark will step into the driver’s seat as the returning star led the NCAA in field goal percentage last year. The forward finished fourth in the A-Sun in scoring with 16.4 points per game.

Mark will need a lot of help from fellow senior Steve Drabyn, who averaged 12.8 points per game while leading the NCAA in free throw percentage. The Bruins will also need junior Jese Snyder and sophomore Brian Collins to increase their offensive productivity.

6. FAU – (7-21, 3-13)

Florida Atlantic is coming off a poor 2002-03 season in which they finished dead last in the south division, after winning the A-Sun Tournament title in 2001-02. Head coach Sidney Green’s expectations should be higher than a sixth place finish, however, as his Owls are returning eight players from last season. Led by junior Mike Bell, the Owls will be a quiet team in the regular season, though they could turn into an eventual thorn come tournament time.

Bell averaged over 20 points per game in junior college play before switching over to FAU. The Owls will need a huge increase in productivity from big man Wes Edwards, who averaged only 4.3 points in his first season at FAU. Guard Earnest Crumbley returns as one of the team’s top players from last season, as he averaged 16.2 points. Returning guard Jeff Cowans will need to repeat his success from three-point land as well as his 14.6 points per game from last year.

7. Stetson – (6-20, 4-12)

The Hatters fared about as well as FAU last season, as they won only four conference games and finished near the conference cellar. Stetson is led by sophomore EJ Gordon, who ran the Hatters’ offense last year by averaging 14.7 points en route to earning A-Sun Freshman-of-the-Year honors.

Head coach Derek Waugh can only depend on four seniors to serve in a leadership capacity this season, and will have to find ways to get stronger productivity from his bench. Gordon will be backed by forward Joe McNeal, who saw time in ten games as center in 2002-03. McNeal led the Hatters in rebounds and must improve upon his 10.3 points per game if Stetson wants to end its losing ways.

8. Jacksonville – (13-16, 8-8)

Head coach Hugh Durham has his work cut out for him this year. The Dolphins are the most inexperienced team in the country this year, as they are returning only two letter winners from their 2002-03 squad. Junior college transfer Nolan McBride is the team’s only senior, and will need desperately to increase his playing time and lowly 4.9 points per game from last year.

The loss of last season’s leading scorers Calvin Warner and Kevin Sheppard leave JU with very little offensive hope. Of the players returning, none averaged more than four points per game last season.

9. Gardner-Webb – (5-24, 2-14)

Head coach Rick Scruggs’ season needs a lot of help already. The Bulldogs have a small unit and very little experience. GWU’s 2002-03 leading scorer Otis Daniels is gone. Center Tim Behrendorff was second on the team in scoring last season with just over 10 points per game, however he will need to increase his role by leaps and bounds.

Chris Wiggins and Brian Bender will need a miracle to boost their games to a competitive level, as the two combined for less than 14 points of Bulldog offense each game last season.

10.Campbell – (5-22, 1-15)

First year head coach Robbie Laing is starting from scratch. Senior guard Tarrick Johnson finished second in the A-Sun in scoring last year averaging 17.1 points, but he can’t do it all by himself. Johnson is going to need a world of help from fellow senior Derek Gray and junior Brad McKeiver if they want to avoid battling for conference doormat status with Lipscomb.

11. Lipscomb – (8-20, N/A)

The Bisons are entering their first season of A-Sun competition, however it will mean very little. Lipscomb is not eligible for tournament play this season, and can only hope to act as a spoiler against the rest of the conference.


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