Don’t be misled by the final regular season standings-the Atlantic Sun was a three-team race last year. And a really good one at that.
The final tally will forever show that North Florida edged out Florida Gulf Coast for the title in a terrific race that went down to the final days of the regular season. UNF stung FGCU on the road in the teams’ second-to-last game to clinch a season sweep of the Eagles and no worse than a share of the title. The Ospreys then went on to sweep through the A-Sun tournament for the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
It was another three games down in the standings to South Carolina Upstate, which finished a disappointing 8-6 in league play but posted an overall record more representative of its level. The Spartans went 24-12, pinned North Florida with its only two A-Sun losses, and also added regular season wins over Georgia Tech and Mississippi State, as well as playing Maryland and Memphis tough on the road.
The games between North Florida, FGCU and USC Upstate were appointment viewing last year, which was shown no better than in the Atlantic Sun tourney. Upstate and FGCU swapped the lead six times down the stretch in the semifinals before the Spartans pulled out a 63-62 nailbiter. UNF then took advantage of a raucous home crowd in the championship game, coming back late for a 63-57 win and its first A-Sun tourney title.
North Florida’s ascendance is another victory for a conference that continues to weather serious membership fluctuations. The biggest recent blow was when Mercer departed for the Southern Conference, fresh off a victory over Duke in the NCAA tourney, robbing the league of a little of the hard-earned offseason publicity from that big win.
The list of members who have used the Atlantic Sun as a steppingstone to another conference is long, dating back to when it was known as the Tran America Athletic Conference. The list of schools that have emerged in those schools’ places, though, is equally as long, so North Florida joining that club really should be no surprise.
Even without Mercer and with “only” eight teams (remember that time when eight-team conferences with double round-robin schedules were the norm?) the A-Sun continues to churn out quality teams. The next step is to bring up the rest of the league; the conference ranked 30th in the RPI according to CBSSports.com and needs improvement from its bottom half.
|Florida Gulf Coast||11-3||22-11|
|South Carolina Upstate||8-6||24-12|
Every game of the Atlantic Sun tourney again was again contested at home sites. The top three teams indeed made their way to the semifinals with relative ease, with top seed North Florida knocking out No. 8 Stetson 81-67, second-seeded FGCU pulling away from No. 7 Jacksonville 81-63 and three seed USC Upstate hammering No. 6 Kennesaw State 90-54. The fourth quarterfinal saw a mild surprise as No. 5 Lipscomb outlasted No. 4 Northern Kentucky 76-73 in overtime.
North Florida was in control in the semifinals against Lipscomb, never trailing in a 71-57 victory in which Dallas Moore was magnificent with 36 points. The other semifinal was a dandy that left a bitter taste at the end, as FGCU’s Bernard Thompson missed the final of three free throws with a second left to allow Upstate to avoid overtime and take a 63-62 victory.
The championship game saw an A-Sun championship game record of 6,155 fans on hand to create a rabid atmosphere at UNF Arena. The homestanding Ospreys built a nine-point halftime lead but fell behind USC Upstate by four points midway through the second half before buckling down defensively, holding the Spartans without a field goal for more than 6 1/2 minutes during a deciding 12-0 run. Damarcus Daniels scored 22 points off the bench in being named tournament MVP and leading North Florida to a 63-57 victory.
Player of the Year: Ty Greene, G, Sr., USC Upstate
Defensive Player of the Year: Demarcus Daniels, F, Jr., North Florida
Freshman of the Year: Taylor Persons, G, Northern Kentucky
Newcomer of the Year: Kori Babineaux, G, Jr., Jacksonville
Coach of the Year: Matthew Driscoll, North Florida
Beau Beech, F/G, Jr., North Florida
Brett Comer, G, Sr., Florida Gulf Coast
Ty Greene, G, Sr., USC Upstate
Dallas Moore, G, So., North Florida
Josh Williams, G, So., Lipscomb
- Three teams qualified for the postseason, as North Florida made it to the NCAA Tournament and both Florida Gulf Coast and USC Upstate played in the CIT.
- Upstate defeated James Madison in its CIT opener to make it seven straight years that the A-Sun has won at least one postseason tournament game.
- The A-Sun earned its share of scalps of bigger names. North Florida won at Purdue, FGCU won at Massachusetts and defeated UC Santa Barbara, and Upstate knocked off Georgia Tech and Mississippi State on the road.
- FGCU’s Comer once again was among the national assist leaders, finishing sixth in NCAA Division I with 7.2 apg. Kennesaw State’s Yonel Brown shot 90.0% from the free throw line, ranking eighth nationally, while USC Upstate’s Greene also ranked eighth in the country in total points (709) and tied for 10th in three-pointers made (103). Also, Northern Kentucky’s Jalen Billups shot 69.6% from the field, a total that would’ve led Division I except he was just shy of the NCAA minimum of five made FG/game.
What we expected, and it happened: Florida Gulf Coast was good again, winning 22 games. On the other end of the standings, Jacksonville and Stetson had young teams with new coaches and finished at the bottom as predicted.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: FGCU was a fairly prohibitive favorite to win the league but faced more competition than most expected and won neither the regular season nor tournament titles. Also, Lipscomb was unable to live up to being picked second in the league’s preseason media poll and a solid third in the preseason poll of league coaches.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: USC Upstate was regarded before the season as a very mid-pack team that would struggle to finish .500 overall, but the Spartans won 24 games, beat some brand names along the way and also boasted the league’s player of the year.
Team on the rise: North Florida. As good as the Ospreys were, they may be even better this next year.
Team on the decline: Florida Gulf Coast. It may not be so much decline as adjustment for the Eagles. Just one player (Filip Cvjeticanin) remains from the Dunk City Sweet 16 team, and the top three scorers have departed. Joe Dooley has recruited a roster with talent, transfer-heavy and including six players between 6-7 and 6-11, but it will likely take time to mesh.
2015-16 Conference Outlook
On paper, the preseason prognosis for the Atlantic Sun is quite similar to the past season. One team appears to stand head and shoulders above the rest, only this time it’s North Florida instead of Florida Gulf Coast. The Ospreys return four starters and seven of their nine rotation players from a good team that, as mentioned above, defeated Purdue and has the firepower, three-point shooting ability and depth to beat almost anyone. UNF has arrived, and last year’s experience should only help the Ospreys as they are now the hunted.
One should be past being surprised, though, if the league race is more than just a one-team show, and once again it could be because of a new member making a big impact quickly. New Jersey Institute of Technology filled Northern Kentucky’s spot as the eighth team in the A-Sun, and the Highlanders are equipped to give North Florida a run for the title. NJIT may be a clunky fit geographically, but the Highlanders famously knocked off Michigan last year and advanced to the semifinals of the CIT. Four starters return from a team that won 16 of its final 19 games, and few teams are hungrier for a chance at the NCAA Tournament.
Besides NJIT, there still will be FGCU and USC Upstate. The Eagles are retooling after losing longtime mainstays Comer and Bernard Thompson, but the talent is there to be as good as anyone by the end of the season. Upstate will dearly miss Greene, but most of the rest of the team returns for Eddie Payne, who has developed a very solid program in Spartanburg.
On top of that, maybe this is the year for Lipscomb to return to challenging for the league, as Josh Williams is one of the top guards in the league. Jacksonville will bear watching too in the second year under Tony Jasick, who worked wonders at IPFW and returns nearly everybody. In fact, the performance of teams like Lipscomb, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State and Stetson will determine how much improvement the A-Sun can make as a whole. A jump into, say, even the mid-20s in the conference RPI could be the difference between a 14 or 15 seed and a 16 seed for its champion in the NCAAs.