It would be hard to find a league that had a more suspenseful and more meaningful final day of its regular season than the Atlantic Sun Conference did this year.
Entering the final day of A-Sun play, no less than four teams had a shot at a share of the regular season title, with North Florida in first but Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville and newcomer NJIT all just one game back. The top six teams were separated by just three games, and all eight seeds were still up for grabs. Layering even more meaning to it all was the fact that all Atlantic Sun tournament games are held on the campus sites of the higher-seeded teams.
North Florida spared us from a heap of confusion by holding off a furious late comeback by Jacksonville, winning 81-80 for its second straight regular season crown. Then again, losses by all three teams that entered the night tied for second-to the A-Sun’s No. 6, 7 and 8 teams, no less-kept tiebreaker interpreters fully employed, as positions 2-6 in the final standings were separated by just one game.
The Atlantic Sun really was that balanced all season, too. North Florida went 5-1 against the teams that formed the three-way tie for second, but lost to both fifth-place teams (Lipscomb and Kennesaw State) and to cellar-sharer Stetson. USC Upstate, the No. 8 seed in the A-Sun tourney, defeated tourney No. 2 seed NJIT twice, both times on buzzer beaters. It was a prime example of how the league gets it right, with a double round-robin conference slate where everyone plays each other, every game means something and it’s a meaningful accomplishment to be the best team.
While the league was tightly packed, though, it has had better days from a national standpoint. The Atlantic Sun ranked 28th of 32 conferences in RPI, and other than North Florida (road wins at Illinois and Eastern Michigan) and maybe Florida Gulf Coast (winners over Massachusetts and La Salle), the league was light on signature moments. Unfortunately, it added up to a 16 seed and a play-in game in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, though FGCU dominated Fairleigh Dickinson in its opening round game and then gave top-seeded North Carolina a run for a half.
The 2015-16 campaign also was the first in the A-Sun for NJIT, which gladly surrendered independent status for its first chance at an NCAA automatic bid. The Highlanders had a solid-if-unspectacular regular season, crashed out of the conference tourney early but then regrouped to make the CollegeInsider.com Tournament semifinals for the second straight year.
|Florida Gulf Coast||8-6||21-14|
|South Carolina Upstate||4-10||10-22|
A seemingly benign seventh seed helped the Atlantic Sun tournament catch the nation’s curiosity for a couple days in early March.
Stetson-one of the smallest teams in NCAA Division I with no one taller than 6-7 in its rotation-went just 10-21 in the regular season and was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament anyway due to Academic Progress Rate sanctions. The Hatters were allowed to compete in the A-Sun tourney anyway, with the stipulation that if they won the event that the league’s automatic NCAA bid would go to the regular season champion, in this case North Florida. Regardless, Stetson appeared set for an early exit with a quarterfinal against a highly motivated NJIT team, but then stunned the 2 seed 82-67.
The tourney’s third seed also went down, as No. 6 Lipscomb surprised Jacksonville 92-89 in overtime to set up a semifinal between the sixth and seventh seeds. Stetson then took apart the Bisons 96-75 to move to the title game. Meanwhile, further chaos was taking place on the other half of the bracket, as No. 4 Florida Gulf Coast pummeled North Florida 89-56 on the road in the other semi. The result was a bizarre-but-intriguing championship game scenario that saw FGCU playing for an NCAA bid, Stetson playing for pride, and UNF rooting as hard as any Stetson fan for a Hatters win, which would’ve put the Ospreys in the NCAAs. The championship contest made all three parties sweat all the more, with 16 ties, eight lead changes plus neither team leading by more than five in the second half or overtime. FGCU finally put away Stetson 80-78 in overtime.
Player of the Year: Dallas Moore, G, Jr., North Florida
Newcomer of the Year: Kendrick Ray, G, Jr., Kennesaw State
Freshman of the Year: Derick Newton, F, Stetson
Defensive Player of the Year: Demarcus Daniels, F, Sr., North Florida
Coach of the Year: Matthew Driscoll, North Florida
Kori Babineaux, G, Sr., Jacksonville
Beau Beech, F/G, Sr., North Florida
Damon Lynn, G, Jr., NJIT
Dallas Moore, G, Jr., North Florida
Marc-Eddy Norelia, F, Jr., Florida Gulf Coast
- Three Atlantic Sun teams played in the postseason. Florida Gulf Coast won a play-in game in the NCAA Tournament before losing to national runner-up North Carolina; North Florida was dismissed by Florida in the NIT first round, and NJIT made it to the CIT semifinals for the second straight year.
- The A-Sun collectively led NCAA Division I in scoring, with league teams combining to average 77.1 points per game. North Florida led the conference and finished fifth nationally averaging 84.2 ppg.
- The Ospreys also led the nation with 12.1 three-pointers per game and were seventh nationally in three-point percentage (41.0). Guard Trent Mackey was fifth individually in the country in three-point percentage (46.0).
- Kennesaw State’s Yonel Brown was the nation’s ironman, leading Division I by averaging 38.5 minutes per game.
What we expected, and it happened: North Florida was the A-Sun’s best team on paper, and the Ospreys won the regular season title while also being the league’s highest-profile team with a three-point attack that ranked among the country’s best.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Though UNF won the A-Sun regular season title, it was far from easy, with three other teams in the hunt for first place up until the finale. The Ospreys also did not make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, unable to take advantage of being the top seed in the conference tourney and getting blitzed by FGCU in the semifinals.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Jacksonville was a team to watch a year ago, albeit still with rather modest expectations, but the Dolphins challenged for the league title right up to the final day of the regular season.
Team on the rise: Jacksonville. Tony Jasick built IPFW from the ground up into one of the top programs in the Summit League, and he’s on his way to doing the same with the Dolphins in the A-Sun.
Team on the decline: USC Upstate. The Spartans found life tough without 2015 A-Sun Player of the Year Ty Greene, dropping from 24 wins to 10. Upstate has work to do to return to contender status.
2016-17 Atlantic Sun Outlook
There was mystery in the A-Sun at the end of 2015-16, but there is little doubt who the favorite will be next year. Florida Gulf Coast returns six of its top seven scorers, including Marc-Eddy Norelia, a consistent double-double threat, and coach Joe Dooley will be back after apparently flirting with taking an assistant coaching job at a richer school. The Eagles aren’t quite Dunk City anymore, but they still have considerable athleticism and should be pretty darn good.
North Florida is still a threat with the return of conference player of the year Moore. The Ospreys will have a different look without three-point bombers Beau Beech and Trent Mackey, but should return enough to challenge for the title if FGCU falters. Jacksonville should be there too, with four starters returning, even if one of them isn’t Kori Babineaux. NJIT will be solid too with its own three-point sniper returning in Damon Lynn. The remaining four teams should again be dangerous, though a notch below overall. Come to think of it, after substituting the league’s defending tournament champion in the favorite’s role over the defending regular season champs, the A-Sun’s outlook at this point does look quite a bit like the way its last season ended.