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2016-17 Atlantic Sun Post-Mortem

July 18, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

Florida Gulf Coast has been a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference for just 10 years, and eligible for its conference tournament for only six.

There’s no denying, though, that the Eagles are easily the league’s signature program right now. They played like it in the 2016-17 season, too, winning the A-Sun regular season and postseason championships, on the way to the school’s third NCAA Division I Tournament berth.

Florida Gulf Coast had a good showing out of conference, defeating the likes of Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech and just missing chances for signature wins at Baylor and Michigan State. The Eagles also led the Atlantic Sun from wire-to-wire and in the conference tournament posted three wins by double-digit margins for their second straight A-Sun tourney title. FGCU then went into the NCAA Tournament as a 14 seed and put a scare into Florida State, finally succumbing 86-80.

The Eagles’ talent and athleticism has regularly been a notch above most Atlantic Sun members, and that was the case again. Central Florida transfer Brandon Goodwin starred in his first year, Demetris Morant led inside and was a premier presence in the conference defensively, and FGCU won 26 games and met preseason expectations even with relatively little from Marc-Eddy Norelia, who was the team’s focal point the year before.

Florida Gulf Coast did receive a good push in league play from surprising Lipscomb, which emerged as a contender and was tied for first until a late-season slip-up at home against North Florida. Sophomore Garrison Mathews led a three-point bombing team that rebounded from a 3-8 start to win 20 games and also added a victory at SEC member Missouri.

Besides those two, the A-Sun struggled. Dallas Moore did his best to carry North Florida, but the Ospreys were ultra-young, played a vicious non-conference schedule and couldn’t match their league champion form of the previous two years. South Carolina Upstate was improved, but New Jersey Tech slipped to a tie for the cellar, in part due to the loss of Damon Lynn.

Collectively, the Atlantic Sun ranked 26th in conference RPI (per CBSSports.com), actually an improvement of two spots from the year before. Unfortunately, it was a quick postseason for the league, as all three of its postseason tourney qualifiers-FGCU, Jacksonville and USC Upstate (both in CIT) were eliminated in the first round.

Final Standings:

A-Sun Overall
Florida Gulf Coast 12-2 26-8
Lipscomb 11-3 20-13
North Florida 8-6 15-19
South Carolina Upstate 7-7 17-16
Kennesaw State 7-7 14-18
Jacksonville 5-9 17-16
NJIT 3-11 11-20
Stetson 3-11 11-21

Conference Tournament
The Atlantic Sun’s perfectly symmetrical, eight-team tourney was once again held on campus sites of higher seeds. The quarterfinal games were marked by some outstanding individual efforts, none better than that of Dallas Moore. The North Florida guard scored 37 points to break a 32-year old conference single-season scoring record, besting the mark of former Mercer and NBA guard Sam Mitchell set in 1984-85, back when the league was known as the Trans America Athletic Conference. The No. 3 seed Ospreys outlasted city rival and sixth-seeded Jacksonville 77-74, despite 28 points from the Dolphins’ Marcel White. No. 2 seed Lipscomb also downed 7 seed NJIT 97-66 behind 30 points from Garrison Mathews, while Kennesaw State pulled the only quarterfinal upset by seed, slipping past USC Upstate 80-78 in the 4/5 game behind 24 points and five assists from Kendrick Ray.

Top seed Florida Gulf Coast received a balanced effort in routing No. 8 Stetson 87-57 in its opener, and the Eagles then dismissed Kennesaw State’s Owls 74-62 behind 28 points from Brandon Goodwin. North Florida staged an upset in the second semifinal, winning at Lipscomb 91-85 on the strength of 16-for-24 three-point shooting, including 12 triples in the first half in building a 13-point halftime lead that the Bisons could never recover from.

FGCU appeared in its fifth A-Sun tourney final in six years, and the Eagles got a scare from North Florida for more than a half. The Ospreys led by six at halftime, but Goodwin scored 14 of his 19 in the second half and UNF shot just 5-for-27 in the second half. The Eagles cruised to a 77-61 win, with Goodwin winning tourney MVP honors.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Dallas Moore, G, Sr., North Florida
Defensive Player of the Year: Demetris Morant, F, Sr., Florida Gulf Coast
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Goodwin, G, Jr., Florida Gulf Coast
Freshman of the Year: Wajid Aminu, F, North Florida
Coach of the Year: Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast

All-Conference Team
Michael Buchanan, C, Sr., USC Upstate
Brandon Goodwin, G, Jr., Florida Gulf Coast
Garrison Mathews, G, So., Lipscomb
Dallas Moore, G, Sr., North Florida
Kendrick Ray, G, Sr., Kennesaw State

Season Highlights

  • The Atlantic Sun again was one of the highest-scoring conferences in NCAA Division I, with its teams collectively averaging 77.9 points per game, second only to the Summit League.
  • Florida Gulf Coast posted the best non-conference win of any Atlantic Sun school, defeating Sun Belt regular season champ and NIT quarterfinalist Texas-Arlington. North Florida also toppled Big Sky tourney champion North Dakota, USC Upstate defeated UNC Charlotte and Lipscomb won at SEC member Missouri.
  • Kennesaw State guard Nick Masterson finished second in the country in three-point field goal percentage at 54.1%, while North Florida’s Moore ranked fourth in Division I in scoring, averaging 23.9 ppg.
  • Kennesaw State also ranked third nationally in three-point percentage (41.6%), while Lipscomb was third in assists per game (18.2). Florida Gulf Coast also was fifth in D-I in field goal percentage (49.9%).

What we expected, and it happened: Florida Gulf Coast was a prohibitive favorite to win the Atlantic Sun, and the Eagles delivered, winning the regular season and then rolling through the conference tournament.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought North Florida, NJIT and Jacksonville would be the top challengers to FGCU, but youth put UNF behind all season, NJIT was plundered by a season-ending injury to star Damon Lynn, and the Dolphins couldn’t keep up the momentum from a good non-conference showing.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Lipscomb stepped up in a big way, jumping from 12 wins to its first 20-win season in 11 years and pushing FGCU right to the end for the regular season title.

Team on the rise: Lipscomb. The Bisons zipped up the standings, won at Missouri, and just missed out on bigger things, dropping a pair at the buzzer against rival Belmont and chasing FGCU all year in the A-Sun. Four starters should be back for a slick-shooting team.

Team on the decline: NJIT. The Highlanders saw their win total nearly sliced in half from 20 wins to 11, and now must replace four senior starters. Brian Kennedy will have a very young team next year.

2017-18 Atlantic Sun Outlook
Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida and USC Upstate staged a spirited race in the Atlantic Sun a couple years ago, and four teams were involved when the season went down to a photo finish on the last day in 2015-16. There’s no doubt, though, that FGCU is the team everyone is shooting at right now. The backcourt is set with Goodwin, Zach Johnson and Christian Terrell, while the frontcourt is loaded with size and high-level talent.

That doesn’t mean the gap between the Eagles and the rest of the league is a huge one, nor is it insurmountable. Lipscomb proved that last year, winning at FGCU (the Eagles returned the favor in Nashville) and very nearly tying the Eagles for the regular season crown. North Florida was the Achilles’ heel, knocking off Lipscomb three times, and both teams should be in contention again.

The outlook gets foggy after that. Kennesaw State under Al Skinner has developed into a tough out, though Kendrick Ray and interior force Aubrey Williams are two big losses. The same can be said about Eddie Payne, who typically has USC Upstate competitive, and the Spartans-deep in perimeter shooting-can be again if they can make up for the loss of Michael Buchanan. Jacksonville and NJIT both lose a bunch. Maybe Stetson can make a move this year. The Hatters bring back Derick Newton, the wonderfully named Divine Myles and almost everyone except rugged Brian Pegg, but need to rebound better after ranking third from the bottom in NCAA Division I in that category last year.

The Atlantic Sun will remain at eight teams for one more year before North Alabama begins the move from Division II and joins in 2018-19. Though considered a small league by those now numb to 14-team mega-conferences, it’s actually a very healthy size for creating intriguing conference play, something the league has had in spades the past several years now.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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