Atlantic Sun Conference 2007-08 Preview
by Phil Kasiecki
The times are changing for the Atlantic Sun as it enters its 30th year of existence. Most notably, the makeup of the conference has undergone some changes in recent years and continues to this season. Those changes have of late involved newcomers to Division I.
This time around, the conference welcomes two new members, both of whom are new to Division I. Florida Gulf Coast joins fresh off a 27-6 season in their final year of Division II, while South Carolina Upstate joins after going 17-11 in their final season. Neither team projects to contend right away; South Carolina Upstate lost a lot to graduation and will struggle more. They join North Florida among the newest Division I teams in the conference, as the Ospreys completed their first season of competition last year, and Kennesaw State isn’t far behind as they just completed their second season.
Last season saw a few major stories of note in the conference. In just its second season in the conference, East Tennessee State took home the regular season title. But they couldn’t turn that into an NCAA Tournament bid, as for the second year in a row, Justin Hare and Belmont took home the tournament title. Meanwhile, Jacksonville made a big jump in Cliff Warren’s second season at the helm, going from one win in 2005-06 to going over .500 last year with 15 wins.
The conference brings back some of last season’s top talent, as four of the first team all-conference players return. One of them, Campbell’s Jonathan Rodriguez, made it as a freshman in headlining a solid class of newcomers last season. Campbell has a player to build around, while several other teams have players they can continue to build around in their sophomore class.
The conference will also see familiar faces on the sidelines as no schools changed head coaches in the off-season, making it one of just four conferences with no coaching changes.
Player of the Year: Courtney Pigram, East Tennessee State
Top Newcomer: Stan Januska, North Florida
Defensive Player of the Year: Courtney Pigram, East Tennessee State
Best NBA Prospect: James Florence, Mercer
All-Atlantic Sun Team
Eddie Ard, Sr. F, Lipscomb
James Florence, So. G, Mercer
Justin Hare, Sr. G, Belmont
Courtney Pigram, Jr. G, East Tennessee State
Shaun Stegall, Sr. F, Kennesaw State
East Tennessee State Buccaneers (24-10, 16-2 Atlantic Sun)
Jr. G Courtney Pigram (18.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.6 spg)
So. G Mike Smith (11.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.1 spg)
So. G Dequan Twilley (5.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 4.0 apg)
Sr. F Andrew Reed (9.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.1 spg, 1.1 bpg)
Sr. F Kenyona Swader (3.9 ppg, 1.7 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Buccaneers will be challenged in a non-conference schedule that has five home games. Highlighting the home games are Ohio Valley contender Eastern Kentucky, Marshall (whom they also play on the road) and Appalachian State, and they also host a BracketBusters game. They travel to Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic, where they open with Georgia, and challenging true road games include Dayton, Oklahoma State and Syracuse. Atlantic Sun play begins with three straight at home followed by three straight on the road.
Outlook: The Buccaneers have the pieces in place to come out on top once again, although they hope to finish the job in the conference tournament this time around. They have firepower in the backcourt with Pigram and Smith, with Twilley as the quiet third man in the group. Pigram will be a serious contender for Player of the Year, while Smith and Twilley have bright futures in addition to the present. The frontcourt has maturity with senior starters and a couple of newcomers who will help off the bench. The Bucs held opponents below 40 percent from the field last season, and they should be capable of reaching the 73 points per game they averaged last season, but cutting down on their nearly 17 turnovers wouldn’t hurt.
Belmont Bruins (23-10, 14-4 Atlantic Sun)
Sr. G Justin Hare (14.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.5 apg)
Jr. G Andy Wicke (9.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.1 spg)
Jr. G Henry Harris (5.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.1 apg)
Jr. F Matthew Dotson (7.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg)
So. F Keaton Belcher (3.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Four home games are on tap in a challenging non-conference schedule, including half of in-season home-and-homes with Middle Tennessee and Ohio Valley favorite Austin Peay. They open the season in the Cincinnati Shootout and later play in the Dr. Pepper Classic in Chattanooga, and also have road games at Alabama and Xavier. Atlantic Sun play will see them starting out on the road often, as six of the first eight games are away from home.
Outlook: The Bruins should be right in the hunt once again, led by their money player and senior leader in Hare, who has been the Atlantic Sun Tournament MVP each of the past two seasons. He is the only senior on this team, but he has experienced juniors around him as Harris and Dotson started all 33 games last season and Wicke started just 10 but averaged nearly 26 minutes per game. They have plenty of backcourt depth with juniors Shane Dansby and Will Peeples on the wing. They don’t have the greatest size inside, but if Belcher delivers in an expanded role and 6’11” sophomore Mike Dejworek improves. The Bruins were the top defensive team in the conference last season, and repeating that is among the keys to another conference title.
Mercer Bears (13-17, 8-10 Atlantic Sun)
So. G James Florence (19.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.7 spg)
Sr. G Shaddean Aaron (15.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.2 bpg)
Jr. F Calvin Henry (9.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.4 apg, 2.7 bpg in 14 games)
Sr. F Brian Pfohl (8.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
Sr. F Sam Dolan (8.1 pg, 5.6 rpg, 1.0 apg)
Schedule Highlights: The Bears have five non-conference home games on tap, including a visit from Alabama. They have some challenging road games on tap, including USC to open the season, Boston College, Southern Conference contender Georgia Southern, Auburn, and two games in the College of Charleston Classic at the end of December. In Atlantic Sun play, February begins with three straight road games, then they come home for three straight.
Outlook: The Bears could make a big jump into contention this season thanks to arguably the best backcourt in the conference. Florence could be the best guard in the conference by the time his career is over, as he’s already among the very best, and Aaron was the team’s second-best rebounder from the wing and does a little of everything. The frontcourt complements them well and has good experience, and that combination along with the guards’ talent can be one for much success. If they are to contend, the Bears must improve on their defense after surrendering more points than all but one team last season, and only one team turned the ball over more as well.
Jacksonville Dolphins (15-14, 11-7 Atlantic Sun)
So. G Ben Smith (9.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.3 apg)
Sr. G Evan Jefferson (6.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg)
So. F Derek Duggins (3.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg)
So. F Lehmon Colbert (11.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Jr. F Marcus Allen (9.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.1 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Dolphins will certainly be challenged in non-conference play, as they have just three home games and no shortage of tough road games. On tap are trips to UAB, Michigan State, Florida, Georgetown and Sun Belt contender South Alabama. They continue the road play early in the Atlantic Sun portion, as they start with two straight at home before playing the next four on the road (though one is the completion of an in-season home-and-home with Savannah State).
Outlook: Cliff Warren’s team made a big jump last season to get over .500 overall, and two players who started as freshmen last season will try to lead them to more success. Smith and Colbert join with Allen to form a solid nucleus, with Smith making a nice transition at the point guard spot. With Allen and Colbert, there aren’t many concerns inside save for the lack of size, as only freshman Szymon Lukasiak stands taller than 6’7″. Jefferson is the only senior on the roster, so the Dolphins might be a year away while making more steps toward being contenders. The Dolphins were second in the conference in scoring last season, and that doesn’t figure to be a major concern this season. Improvement at the defensive end, where opponents shot over 46 percent from the field against them last season, will go a long way towards continuing the improvement they made last season.
Kennesaw State Owls (14-18, 9-9 Atlantic Sun)
So. G Zach Berry (2.1 ppg, 1.3 apg)
So. G Keonte Keith (3.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
Sr. G-F Ronell Wooten (14.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.2 spg)
Sr. F Shaun Stegall (14.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.3 spg)
So. F Jon-Michael Nickerson (4.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Five home games are on the non-conference schedule, including two in the 100 Club Classic that they will host. Highlights of the road games include Sun Belt favorite Western Kentucky, Auburn, and UNLV and Minnesota in the Duel in the Desert. The Owls get a chance to start Atlantic Sun play with some momentum, as their first three games and five of the first seven are at home.
Outlook: The Owls have wasted little time being competitive in the conference, going 9-9 in their second season. Taking another step forward won’t be easy this time around, as two sophomores project to start in the backcourt. Keith started nine games last season and should be better with more minutes, but Berry averaged just under ten minutes per game last season and has a tall order in replacing departed starter Golden Ingle. Wooten and Stegall ensure there won’t be any questions at the forward spots, and Nickerson started 18 games last season and could be on his way to a nice career. A big key to their success last season was the Owls having the top turnover margin in the conference, helped by only one team turning it over less. That helped mask problems shooting the ball and defending, both areas for improvement.
Lipscomb Bisons (18-13, 11-7 Atlantic Sun)
Sr. G LaKory Daniels (3.2 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 1.2 apg)
Jr. G Michael Lusk (5.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.7 apg)
Sr. F Eddie Ard (15.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.4 spg)
So. F Michael Teller (5.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Sr. C Jason Hopkins (6.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Bisons have three home games on tap in non-conference play and will play in two tournaments to start the season, the Cylcone Challenge at Iowa State and the First Shot Exempt Tournament at Middle Tennessee. Among the road games later are trips to Purdue, Vanderbilt, Marshall, and the road half of an in-season home-and-home with Southland contender McNeese State.
Outlook: Like Kennesaw State, the Bisons lost their starting point guard and it could knock them down a bit. Daniels started eight games last season, so he’s not entirely inexperienced, but the point guard spot wasn’t his. Sophomore Devon Seaford could compete for it as well, but either way, they don’t have a proven starter at the position. Lusk started most of last season and should be well-equipped to increase his production as they will need more from him. Ard is one of the best players in the conference and will be the go-to guy once again while doing a little of everything. Teller and Hopkins should be ready to lead the inside game, with the undersized Hopkins having a promising first season last year. They added some size in the recruiting class with freshmen Adam Hodzic and Brandon Brown. The Bisons turned the ball over less than any other Atlantic Sun team and defended well, and doing both once again would go a long way towards approaching the 20-win mark. When they held opponents below 70 points last season, they were 18-4, but never won when the opponent topped 70 points.
Stetson Hatters (11-20, 6-12 Atlantic Sun)
Jr. G Garfield Blair (13.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.1 spg)
Jr. G Kris Thomas (9.7 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.2 spg)
Jr. F Eric Diaz (6.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Sr. F J.J. Hirst (5.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Jr. F-C Collins Okafor (3.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Hatters have four non-conference home games as part of a challenging slate, including in-season home-and-homes with Bethune-Cookman and Savannah State. Early on, they play in the Glenn Wilkes Classic, first at UAB and then three games in Daytona Beach, including Atlantic 10 contender Rhode Island and Southern contender Georgia Southern. Later, they travel to play Florida, Florida State and Miami. Atlantic Sun play opens with three straight road games, but they close the regular season with three straight at home.
Outlook: The Hatters may be a year away from seriously contending as they have just one senior on the team, so this year will be a vital growth year for the current Hatters. Adding to it is that four starters are back, so they already have experience playing together. The one starter gone from last season’s team is point guard Gabe McMillen, so it’s imperative that Blair or someone else emerges to run the show. Blair and Thomas can both score, while Diaz combines with them to form a perimeter unit that can score but also needs to rebound better to support their inside players. There is some depth with similar experience behind them from sophomores A.J. Smith, Sheldon Oliver and Brandon Williams, all of whom played in every game and averaged double-digit minutes last season. Of concern is that Williams is the only one who had more assists than turnovers last season. Hirst and Okafor have good size inside, and they get help from junior Tim Lang and freshman Graeme Radford, the latter of whom stands 6’10”. The Hatters have several statistical areas for improvement, but defense stands out since they were last in the conference in field goal percentage defense in allowing opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field last year.
Campbell Camels (14-17, 7-11 Atlantic Sun)
Sr. G Reggie Bishop (8.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Sr. G Ruell Pringle (8.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.4 apg)
Sr. G Jake Wohlfell (5.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.6 apg)
So. F Jonathan Rodriguez (17.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.1 bpg)
So. F Kyle Vejraska (6.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Six home games are on tap in non-conference play, including four of the first five to start the season. Included are part of what looks like a Big South schedule, as they have in-season home-and-homes with UNC-Asheville, Radford and Liberty. The most difficult road game figures to be at South Carolina. All in all, it’s a very manageable non-conference slate. Five of the first eight Atlantic Sun games are at home.
Outlook: Robbie Laing’s team has made a couple of nice jumps in the win column the past two seasons in going from two in 2004-05 to 14 last season. To keep that up, the Camels will need their senior perimeter unit to complement super sophomore Rodriguez, one of the best players in the conference. Rodriguez led the team in every major statistical category last season. There is a gaping hole left at the point guard spot, so someone needs to emerge from the trio of Bishop, Pringle and Wohlfell, of whom only Wohlfell had more assists than turnovers last season. Junior college transfer Julius Perkins could also be a candidate. The Camels turned the ball over more than any other Atlantic Sun team last season, and with their best guard at taking care of the ball gone, they could give the ball away a lot again this season. Vejraska showed some promise alongside Rodriguez last season, and behind them will be mostly newcomers, from junior college transfer Eddie Brown to sophomore Oladapo Fagbenle. The Camels led the conference in scoring last season, but their turnovers and allowing opponents to shoot over 46 percent from the field helped negate that.
Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs (9-21, 7-11 Atlantic Sun)
Jr. G Takayo Siddle (8.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.1 spg)
So. G Grayson Flittner (4.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.4 apg)
Sr. G-F Thomas Sanders (11.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.4 spg)
So. F Matt French (5.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
So. F-C Auryn McMillan (3.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Runnin’ Bulldogs have four home games on tap in non-conference play, including half of a home-and-home with Radford and Charleston Southern. They also host Big South contender High Point. They open the season in the 2K Sports Classic in Kentucky, where they play Alabama A&M and could play Kentucky. Later road games of note are at Connecticut, Clemson, Tulane and Charlotte. They get an immediate test in Atlantic Sun play as they open with Belmont at home, then have a three-game road trip a week in.
Outlook: The Runnin’ Bulldogs will be short on experience this season, as Sanders is the only senior on the team and Siddle is one of just four juniors. Sanders does a little of everything from the wing, while Siddle ran the show nicely last season and gives them a solid floor leader. French showed promise last season and will be counted on for more after starting for all but one game in Atlantic Sun play, while Flittner likewise started most of their conference games. The youth movement was in effect late last season, and the Bulldogs could start to see some of it pay off this season. The results just don’t figure to include contention just yet.
North Florida Ospreys (3-26, 1-17 Atlantic Sun)
Sr. G Chris Timberlake (11.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.2 spg)
Jr. G Aaron Caruthers (8.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.2 apg)
So. G-F Germaine Sparkes (7.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.1 spg)
So. G-F Stan Januska (transfer from Morehead State)
Sr. F-C James Grimball (11.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: Four non-conference home games are on tap for the Ospreys, who open the season at Maryland in the College Basketball Experience Classic. The slate also includes an in-season home-and-home with Savannah State, and challenging road games at Florida, Miami and Notre Dame. The Atlantic Sun slate has most of their home games in the early going, as six of their first nine are at home.
Outlook: The Ospreys had a rough introduction to Division I last season, losing 15 in a row at one point. This year’s team has a little more experience, but it still figures to be an uphill battle. Timberlake will make this team go, while Carruthers and Sparkes are good complements off the ball to build around. Januska and East Carolina transfer Tom Hammonds could start on the wing in a small lineup, one with four players who stand 6’7″ or 6’8″ and no one taller. Grimball gave them all he could last season and is their leading returning scorer and rebounder. While the Ospreys struggled in many areas last season, their defense was one of the brighter spots as they were fourth in the conference in field goal percentage defense.
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (27-6 in Division II)
Sr. G Casey Pond (2.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg in 19 games)
Sr. G Rob Quaintance (3.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.5 spg)
Sr. G-F Casey Wohlieb (11.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.7 apg)
Sr. F Adam Liddell (11.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.1 bpg)
Jr. F Landon Adler (10.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Three home games are on tap in non-conference play, all of them challenges: Drexel, Horizon League favorite Butler and Ivy League contender Penn. In November, they play in the South Padre Island Invitational against Iowa, Bradley and Ohio Valley favorite Austin Peay, then later travel to Arizona State and Summit League favorite IUPUI. During Atlantic Sun play, they have two more non-conference road games at DePaul and Marquette. In Atlantic Sun play, they have three early games at home.
Outlook: The Eagles should make the smoother transition to Division I of the two newcomers in the conference, as they return four starters from last season’s 27-game winning squad. Having Quaintance will certainly help, as he doesn’t score much but runs the show very well and can defend, while Pond is the most likely holdover to assume the one open starting job and Wohlieb is the top returning marksman from long range. Liddell and Adler form a solid inside tandem to start with, one that helped the Eagles lead all of Division II in rebounding margin last season. They almost certainly won’t repeat that in Division I this season, but the Eagles have a nice starting point with an experienced squad that has won some games before. They should win their share this season even though they won’t contend.
South Carolina Upstate Spartans (17-11 in Division II)
Sr. G Jeremy Byrd (10.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, 3.5 spg)
Sr. G Luke Payne (11.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.3 apg)
Jr. G Zac Rich (4.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 1.2 apg)
Fr. F Matt Preston (redshirt)
So. C Nick Schneiders (2.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Spartans will be road warriors with a non-conference schedule that has just two home games, neither against a Division I school. They open at Utah before heading to the Top of the World Classic, then later play at Cincinnati, Wake Forest, SMU and Iowa State, and they also play in the State Farm Sun Bowl Classic at UTEP, where they open with the host school.
Outlook: The Spartans’ first year in Division I is likely to be a struggle, as they return just four players who have played more than limited minutes in the program, meaning this season is a change-over all the way around. Fortunately, two of them are the senior backcourt of Byrd and Payne, who along with Rich make the perimeter the clear strength of this team. Byrd makes this team go, and they’ll need it this season. Preston and Schneiders are the likely starters on the inexperienced frontcourt. But this team is just getting started at this level, so it’s going to be a long haul at first.
The race for the top should be a good one, with East Tennessee State and Belmont as the favorites, but by no means prohibitive ones. They should have company with teams like Mercer and Jacksonville that are on the rise, with the Bears having perhaps the best backcourt in the conference. Teams in the middle of the pack appear to be in different forms of flux, either from losing a lot of players or having been young last year and an important year older now.
The three newest teams to Division I figure to struggle this season, with Florida Gulf Coast likely having the easier transition initially of the two new ones. North Florida had a rough go of it last year, but should take some steps forward this year.