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The Morning Dish – Saturday, November 8, 2014

by - Published November 8, 2014 in The Morning Dish
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With the start of the regular season now less than a week away, we’ll now look at a few conferences on some of these upcoming days.

America East has a familiar look among its favorites, as Stony Brook should once again be the team to beat. The Seawolves have had a great run in recent years, but haven’t been able to get over the hump in the conference tournament. They’ll have good competition from a senior-laden Hartford team, as well as defending champion Albany.

Defending national champion Connecticut was chosen as the favorite in the American Athletic Conference coaches poll, but the thinking here is that SMU is more deserving of the nod. The Mustangs bring back plenty from last season, while most of the other top teams in the conference – the Huskies, Cincinnati and Memphis – all lose a lot. Newcomer Tulsa might be the sleeper.

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2013-14 Atlantic Sun Post-Mortem

by - Published June 17, 2014 in Columns, Conference Notes
atlanticsun

The Atlantic Sun doesn’t get a whole lot of publicity over the course of the season. But when the postseason comes around, beware. Atlantic Sun teams have won a game each of the past two NCAA Tournaments. And that’s just the beginning.

Atlantic Sun teams have won 14 postseason games over the past four years, and have won at least one game every year since 2009. The conference has continued to perform well in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, where they placed two teams this season.

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How the conferences shake out as 2014 approaches

by - Published December 31, 2013 in Columns, Your Phil of Hoops
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Non-conference play is just about over at this point. Conference games are ready to take over the rest of the slate, with a few having an “opening day” of sorts, including the Big East with its well-publicized day of five games on Tuesday. A few have already had early conference games, with the West Coast Conference having its opening day on Saturday.

How are the conferences shaping up? Which ones look like we thought and which ones look nothing like what we thought before the season? Here is a look at all 32 conferences as conference play beckons.

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How the conferences shake out as 2013 approaches

by - Published December 28, 2012 in Columns, Your Phil of Hoops
author_kasiecki

Non-conference play is almost over, and it has been quite a stretch. We’ve learned a good deal about a lot of teams, while some are still a mystery for various reasons – injuries, suspensions, ineligibility and a light schedule are all possible reasons. In addition, a few conferences have already seen a game or two mixed in with the non-conference schedule.

Conference play is right around the corner, and while a non-conference resume doesn’t tell the whole story, it does shed some light on teams and conferences. In conference play, there is more familiarity since teams play each other every year, although the changing landscape is starting to diminish that factor a bit. That’s one reason why we see some teams put forth a very good non-conference showing, including some good wins, then go on to have a mediocre showing in conference play.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how every conference in America shapes up.

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The countdown to Selection Sunday starts — less than a month to go

by - Published February 14, 2012 in Columns
hoopguy-orange

It’s hard to believe, but Selection Sunday is officially less than a month away — 26 days to be precise.

That means it’s separation time. The best teams throughout the nation need to raise the bar to claim a regular-season conference championship and jockey for NCAA Tournament seeding.

For the vast majority of the 31 conferences that receive automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament, winning a regular-season conference title is about more than bragging rights. In many conference tournament formats, the regular-season winner gets a bye or home court advantage — sometimes both — at some point in the upcoming conference tourneys. Teams like the America East’s Stony Brook, Big Sky’s Weber State, and SWAC’s Mississippi Valley State won’t be getting at-large bids to the Big Dance if they don’t capture a conference championship in the tournaments. So they’ll take any advantage they can get. … Continue Reading

Mid-April Rundown of the Latest NBA Decisions and Coaching Changes

by - Published April 22, 2011 in Full Court Sprints

1. Stetson is hoping that Casey Alexander can duplicate the run of success he helped establish at Belmont as the Hatters’ new coach, according to a press release from Belmont that announces the associate coach’s departure. In 20 years with the Bruins’ program, Alexander helped the team transition from NAIA to the NCAA and worked to position the Bruins as a mid-major powerhouse in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

2. As the deadline for early entrants to the NBA Draft passes, here’s a rundown of some of the recent announcements:

  • Colorado’s Alec Burks: In draft, with agent.
  • Kentucky’s Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins: All in draft, none with agent.
  • Michigan’s Darius Morris: In draft, without agent.
  • Northwestern’s John Shurna: In draft, without agent.
  • Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor: All returning to school.

3. Among the coaching ranks, here’s some more recent movement:

  • Penn State assistant coach Lewis Preston is leaving to coach Kennesaw State.
  • Former Princeton player Mitch Henderson returns to his alma mater as head coach.
  • Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy will move to Eastern Michigan as head coach.

4. And from the rumor mill, Miami’s coaching search continues, with George Mason’s Jim Larranaga as a new target.

USC Upstate Goes to Great Lengths in Transition

by - Published December 15, 2008 in Columns

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – The transition up to Division I isn’t easy. It usually involves a lot of time on the road, a lot of guarantee games that often include blowout losses, and some changes in evaluating a team.

Most of that is the same with USC Upstate, which is currently in its second season of Division I play. Like a number of teams making the transition, the program had some good years leading up to the jump, including back-to-back seasons with over 20 wins in 2004-05 and 2005-06. They even went 17-11 in their final season of Division II.

Where things look a little different is with regard to who they play in those road games. Many teams new to Division I, if they play a full Division I schedule, will play games against a lot of teams in their geographic area. It would make sense from the standpoint that the travel expenses would likely be lower than if they have to go far away, making the guarantee check ultimately worth a little more.

For USC Upstate, that would mean a lot of the guarantee games would come against ACC and SEC schools. But that hasn’t been the case at all. After Sunday’s game at Boston College, the Spartans have played two ACC and two SEC teams in their season-plus of Division I competition. Instead, they have played all over.

Last season, the Spartans played schools from ten different conferences in their non-conference slate. Only two conferences, the MAC and Conference USA, were home to multiple teams. This season, the Atlantic 10 will be the only conference with two opponents on their schedule, as their ten non-conference games will represent nine conferences.

“We do that from a recruiting perspective,” said head coach Eddie Payne. “We know we have to do that because we have to make money in our second year of Division I. We structure that so we go to good places and do good things.”

Payne, who has previously held the head coach position at East Carolina and Oregon State in the Division I ranks, is in his seventh season leading the program. He’s coached at all levels and is well-suited to lead a program into a transition like this. The prior four years, his son Luke was one of the best players and graduated ninth on the school’s all-time scoring list. Now he’s working with a younger bunch.

In the trip to the Boston area, Payne sprinkled in a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. Another reason he has scheduled games all over is to give his kids a variety of experiences off the court. And while the players look at these as business trips, there is an undeniable liking for being able to get another educational part like going to the Hall of Fame.

“It’s a business trip, but at the same time we try to have fun,” said senior forward Bobby Davis, the team’s best player as he leads them in scoring and rebounding after posting a double-double (19 points, 13 rebounds) against the Eagles.

Not only is the program making a jump up, but this team is also inexperienced. Davis is one of just four upperclassmen who play significant minutes. Three underclassmen start, and the top reserve is a freshman, talented but erratic guard De’Marion Gordon, who looks like he can provide instant offense off the bench.

All of it makes for another challenge: evaluating the team. Sports are a bottom-line business as much as any other, and college basketball is no different. While a team transitioning to Division I might have a little more room for struggle allowed than, say, an ACC school, wins and losses are still there and still impact teams since they are made up of human beings. And while wins and losses are the usual measuring sticks, a situation like this calls for a change in that.

“You have to measure success in different ways,” said Payne. “You have to, from game to game, change what you call success.”

Sometimes that comes from how well they play in a half. Sometimes that means looking at whether or not they are in a game. It sounds like talk of moral victories, but that’s the nature of the beast for a program in this kind of transition.

“We’re just making it as best we can. I’m an old fart, so I think I can handle it,” Payne joked. “I know I can handle it, I can help these guys get through it, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy when you’re playing games that, theoretically, on paper, you don’t have a chance to win.”

Payne says his holdover players look more prepared now that they have a year of Division I under their belt. They are used to playing on the road, used to playing a difficult schedule, and have a feel for what competition is like at this level as opposed to Division II. Also helping is that they are playing teams that play some different styles. While they won’t have everything covered in that respect, and Payne says that wasn’t really the idea, that gives them one more thing to help later on.

“We’ve got a smorgasbord of experiences that can help us in our conference,” Payne reflected.

Payne likes the way his team is coming along, and they’re in a conference where they can win with some good recruiting and improvement before long. The challenges are constantly there for him and his players and not just in winning, but they are literally going to great lengths to try to reach the destination.

Atlantic Sun Preview

by - Published November 7, 2007 in Conference Notes



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.

Preseason Awards
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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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)
Projected Starters:

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.

Conference Outlook

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.

     

Atlantic Sun Preview

by - Published December 6, 2005 in Conference Notes



Atlantic Sun Conference 2005-06 Preview

by Michael Protos

The Atlantic Sun Conference danced the realignment shuffle this off-season, though few media sources made much fanfare of their moves. Gone are Central Florida, Georgia State and Troy. In their place, the A-Sun welcomes East Tennessee State, Kennesaw State and North Florida.

Of the departed three, Central Florida made the leap to the most noteworthy conference – Conference USA. However, with the departure of Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul and Marquette, that conference no longer looks quite as formidable. Troy bolted for the Sun Belt Conference, which is home to mid-major heavyweight Louisiana-Lafayette. Georgia State bounced into the Colonial Athletic Association, which is best known for UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks have made noise in the NCAA Tournament more than once. Now that conference’s power is centered at Old Dominion.

Of the new arrivals, East Tennessee State is the most significant. The Bucs had a successful run in the Southern Conference and figure to become a perennial power in the A-Sun. Kennesaw State and North Florida are both entering their first seasons as Division I programs, so look for them to struggle for a few seasons. Both were solid Division II programs from the Peach Belt Conference.

A one-bid conference, the A-Sun is all about winning the conference tournament. And the conference handed new arrival East Tennessee State a gift by allowing the Bucs to host the conference tournament March 3-5. Only the top eight teams play in the conference tournament, which generates an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Pre-season Awards

Atlantic Sun MVP: Tim Smith, East Tennessee State
Smith is one of the most dominant players in the conference and most prolific scorers in the country. He finished seventh in scoring in the nation last season, averaging 22.2 points per game. The Bucs return their entire starting lineup, so there’s plenty of experience on this team, which requires defense to respect the second and third scoring options. Smith should have a monster season in the Atlantic Sun after tearing apart Southern Conference foes for the past three seasons.

All-Atlantic Sun Team:
Brian Bender, Gardner Webb
Simon Conn, Gardner Webb
Will Emerson, Mercer
Brian Fisk, Lipscomb
Tim Smith, East Tennessee State

Defensive Player of the Year: Tim Jennings, Gardner Webb
Jennings is a defensive monster in the post, blocking 40 shots last season. A year older, wiser and possibly quicker, Jennings should continue to wreak havoc on opposing offenses and repeat as defensive player of the year.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Robbie Laing, Campbell
Laing has guided the Fighting Camels, one of the least intimidating nicknames in sports, through one of their worst periods. In two seasons, the Camels are an astoundingly bad 5-49. The team won only two games last season and none in conference play. If Laing doesn’t get this team heading in the right direction, he will be heading out of town.

Team Capsules

Gardner Webb Bulldogs (2004-05: 18-12, 13-7)
Projected starters:
Senior center Simon Conn
Senior forward Brian Bender
Senior forward Tim Jennings
Senior guard T.J. McCullough
Junior guard Chris Gash
Schedule highlights:
at North Carolina
at Auburn
at Minnesota

Roster notes:
After sharing the league title with Central Florida last season, the Bulldogs return their entire starting lineup and every major contributor. Senior forwards Brian Bender and Simon Conn are the leaders of this seasoned team. Bender averages 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while Conn averages 14.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. That’s a lot of points and significant experience in the frontcourt, and not something many mid-major programs nationwide can claim.

Look for the Bulldogs to dominate most A-Sun opponents. The teams that have the best chance of derailing Gardner Webb are East Tennessee State and Belmont. The Bucs have a great starting five, but Gardner Webb’s depth should allow the Bulldogs to win that match up. Belmont could pose a bigger threat because the Bruins win by firing a bunch of three-pointers. That is the Bulldogs’ one weakness: no player hits more than 35 percent of his three-pointers.

Prediction: First

East Tennessee State Bucs (2004-05: 10-19, Southern: 4-12)
Projected starters:
Senior forward Dillon Sneed
Sophomore forward Andrew Reed
Senior guard Ben Rhoda
Junior guard Travis Strong
Senior guard Tim Smith
Schedule highlights:
at Tennessee
at Clemson
vs. Central Michigan

Roster notes:
The Bucs return diminutive senior guard Tim Smith, the team’s leading scorer and one of the most dangerous guards in the country. At only 5-9, opposing defenses can’t stop Smith. He averaged 22.2 points per game last season, good for seventh in the country. He figures to have another great season, especially with the return of fellow seniors Dillon Sneed and Ben Rhoda.

East Tennessee State also returns starters Andrew Reed and Travis Strong, who must learn from the seniors in preparation for next season when they will have to run the team. The rest of the lineup is inexperienced, so the Bucs can ill afford an injury and will need the reserves to learn on the job. The lack of depth will prevent the Bucs from overcoming Gardner Webb, but the starting five is probably the best in the conference. It’s certainly good enough to carry the Bucs to second and guarantee a spot in the A-Sun Tournament, which will be held on the Bucs’ home court. East Tennessee State’s gym is more than double the size of any other school’s gym in the conference.

Prediction: Second

Belmont Bruins (2004-05: 14-16, 12-8)
Projected starters:
Junior center Andrew Preston
Senior forward Dan Oliver
Sophomore guard Justin Hare
Senior guard Brian Collins
Junior guard Josh Goodwin
Schedule highlights:
at Oklahoma
at Ohio State
at Kansas State

Roster notes:
The Bruins’ M.O. for the past few seasons has been to jack up enough three-pointers to out-score opponents. This season figures to be no different as Belmont plans to use a three-guard lineup most of the time, which features reigning A-Sun Rookie of the Year Justin Hare. Although Hare did not start for the Bruins last season, he logged plenty of minutes.

Hare and company must overcome the loss of Jese Snyder, who led the team in scoring last season at 11.8 points per game. But Hare, Josh Goodwin and Brian Collins also averaged in double-figures, so they will merely need to step up. With such an experienced lineup, look for Belmont to contend with the conference heavyweights, Gardner Webb and East Tennessee State. The Bruins will definitely be in the top eight and playing in the conference tournament in March.

Prediction: Third

Lipscomb Bisons (2004-05: 16-12, 11-9)
Projected starters:
Senior center Shaun Durant
Senior forward Cameron Robinson
Sophomore guard Eddie Ard
Junior guard Brian Fisk
Senior guard James Poindexter
Schedule highlights:
at Auburn
at Tennessee
vs. Liberty

Roster notes:
Lipscomb returns all five starters from last season’s squad and has an excellent opportunity to challenge for a top spot in the A-Sun. Labrian Lyons is the only significant contributor from last season who does not return. The Bisons get back junior guard Brian Fisk and senior guard James Poindexter, who both averaged in double figures last season. Seniors Shaun Durant and Cameron Robinson form a potent pair in the paint as both attack the glass to grab rebounds.

Although the Bisons return the nucleus of their team, Lipscomb lacks the same talent that Gardner Webb and East Tennessee State possess. For the Bisons to climb above those squads and Belmont, this team must play more consistently and polish off weaker A-Sun competition.

Prediction: Fourth

Mercer Bears (2004-05: 16-12, 11-9)
Projected starters:
Senior center Will Emerson
Sophomore guard Shaddean Aaron
Junior guard Jacob Skogen
Senior guard Damitrius Coleman
Junior guard Ross Alacqua
Schedule highlights:
at Oklahoma State
at Colorado
at Georgia Southern

Roster notes:
The Bears liked to score early and often last season, averaging nearly 81 points per game. But Mercer loses two of its four double-digit scorers from last season, so it must find some new contributors or slow down the pace. Senior center Will Emerson returns and is probably the best big man in the conference. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game last season, but is one of only four forwards on the roster.

With so few post players, opponents will likely collapse on Emerson whenever he touches the ball. Therefore, it’s critical for junior guard Jacob Skogen to continue to be a scoring threat after averaging 14.7 points per game last season. The rest of the guards do not have gaudy statistics, but they are a solid bunch that should help propel the Bears into the middle of the pack. Mercer likely won’t join the conference’s elite, but the Bears should still be on the prowl during the conference tournament.

Prediction: Fifth

Jacksonville Dolphins (2004-05: 16-13, 11-9)
Projected starters:
Junior center Ljubisa Vrcelj
Senior forward Mario Brown
Senior forward Antonio Cool
Senior guard Jesse Kimbrough
Senior guard Aubrey Conerly
Schedule highlights:
vs. Florida State
at Florida
at Georgia Tech

Roster notes:
The Dolphins switched their coach after last season, as longtime coach Hugh Durham moved on. Jacksonville tabbed Georgia Tech assistant Cliff Warren, who enters his first year as a head coach and will have his hands full.

Jacksonville loses several critical members of last season’s team, including Haminn Quaintance, David Lee and B.J. Surry. Those three accounted for nearly half the Dolphins’ point production from last season. Returning starters Antonio Cool and Jesse Kimbrough must step up, and the same is true for several other seniors and juniors. This team will probably struggle to find an identity under new coach Warren and inexperienced starters. But Jacksonville was among the A-Sun’s defensive leaders, and good defense always gives a team a chance to win. Look for the Dolphins to win enough to reach the conference tournament.

Prediction: Sixth

Florida Atlantic Owls (2004-05: 10-17, 10-10)
Projected starters:
Senior forward Rodney Webb
Senior forward Fred Marshall
Sophomore forward Derrick Simmons
Senior guard Quinton Young
Sophomore guard Ty McTyer
Schedule highlights:
at Northwestern
at South Florida
vs. College of Charleston

Roster notes:
The most significant roster changes for the Owls this off-season is the addition of Matt Doherty as head coach. After taking a year off, Doherty is back in the coaching game after a rough three-year tenure at North Carolina, where he recruited the likes of Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May. If Doherty can get just one player of that caliber to come to Boca Raton in three years, the Owls will have received more than they could have hoped for.

Doherty has a tough road ahead this season, however, because the Owls lost four of their top six scorers. The team does return senior guard Quniton Young, who averaged 12.3 points per game. He must fill the shoes vacated by Mike Bell, who averaged 19.1 points per game. Senior Rodney Webb is the other most significant returning Owl. He averaged 9.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season. The rest of the lineup is a hodge-podge of inexperienced and unproven players. The Owls should finish in the top eight and reach the conference tournament, but primarily thanks to a terrible Campbell team and two Division II arrivals in the conference. The other eight teams have to make the conference tournament.

Prediction: Seventh

Stetson Hatters (2004-05: 10-17, 8-12)
Projected starters:
Senior forward J.J. Hirst
Sophomore forward Collins Okafor
Senior guard Anthony Register
Senior guard E.J. Gordon
Junior guard Will Holloman
Schedule highlights:
at Georgetown
at Florida State
at Miami

Roster notes:
The Hatters return senior guards Anthony Register and E.J. Gordon, who combined for more than 30 points per game last season. That is nearly half of the Hatters’ production last season, and they will continue to be the driving force for the Hatters since they lack any type of viable post presence.

The graduation of Borislav Djordjic and Mark Stiles hurts Stetson’s frontcourt. Senior forward J.J. Hirst will need to become a leader in the frontcourt despite averaging less than two points and rebounds per game last season. Stetson features one of the best names in all of college basketball: Chief Killingstallionsims. The 7-1 center doesn’t see much playing time, much to the chagrin of college basketball writers nationwide. The bottom line for the Hatters is that they’ll go as far as Register and Gordon can carry them. Without a real frontcourt, that’ll only be the middle of the A-Sun pack.

Prediction: Eighth

Campbell Fighting Camels (2004-05: 2-25, 0-20)
Projected starters:
Senior forward Comerlee Poole
Senior forward Maurice Latham
Junior forward Diego Aguiar
Sophomore guard Jake Wohlfeil
Sophomore guard Ruell Pringle
Schedule highlights:
at Florida State
at Indiana State
at Evansville

Roster notes:
The good news for the Fighting Camels is that they return almost of all their lineup from last season. That means more experience, including the services of sophomore Ruell Pringle, who led the team with 12.6 points per game in his freshman season. And senior forward Comerlee Poole is a solid big man who averaged 8.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season.

The bad news is that this team – with the same players from last season – won only two games and none in conference play. That does not bode well for this season. Fortunately, Kennesaw State and North Florida are Division I newcomers, so the Camels should find a way to avoid finishing last, but not by much. And it won’t be enough to get them into the conference tournament.

Prediction: Ninth

Kennesaw State Owls (2004-05: 24-6, Division II)
Projected starters:
Freshman center Dusty Moore
Senior forward Kenan Knight
Sophomore guard Ronnell Wooten
Senior guard Israel Ingle
Junior guard Golden Ingle
Schedule highlights:
at George Washington
at St. Louis
at Furman

Roster notes:
Kennesaw State makes the switch from Division II to Division I at a time of transition. The Owls have virtually no one from last season’s roster left on the team. Gone are the top three scorers, and nine of the top 10 contributors. That’s a brutal turnover for a perennial D-II powerhouse that must now adjust to D-I.

Sophomore guard Ronnell Wooten is the leading man on this team after averaging 9.1 points per game. He will likely be the go-to man for points this season. But unless some of the youngsters develop quickly, opposing defenses will be able to shadow him with their best defensive stopper – or two. Luckily, Wooten is a sophomore, and with seven freshmen on the team, the Owls’ best days are ahead.

Prediction: Tenth

North Florida Ospreys (2004-05: 14-17, Division II)
Projected starters:
Junior forward James Grimball
Senior forward David Ashwell
Senior guard Derrick Scott
Senior guard Riley Didion
Sophomore guard Chris Timberlake
Schedule highlights:
at College of Charleston
at Binghamton
vs. Savannah State

Roster notes:
North Florida enters its first Division I campaign without last season’s leading scorer, Donny Lotz, who graduated after averaging 13.7 points per game last season. Against Division II competition, the Ospreys only managed to score a little more than 66 points per game. So without Lotz, the Ospreys must find a new leader and put up more points, or else this team will lose badly in a lot of games this season.

Senior guard Derrick Scott and junior forward James Grimball will carry much of the load. Scott averaged 12.3 points per game, and Grimball was good for 11.3 points per game. They are the only other Ospreys who averaged more than 10 points per game. North Florida did not shoot particularly well from three-point land or rebound effectively, and those trends figure to continue this season. The Ospreys will do well to evade last place in the A-Sun this season.

Prediction: Eleventh

Final thoughts

The Atlantic Sun Conference will likely be hierarchical this season. The best teams – Gardner Webb, East Tennessee State, Belmont and Lipscomb – contrast greatly with the worst teams – Campbell, Kennesaw State and North Florida. The top four will likely battle for seeding in the conference tournament, which could be huge because the fourth team will likely have to play a dangerous Mercer team.

Florida Atlantic, Stetson and Jacksonville do not appear particularly strong on paper, but they could still surprise the heavyweights. If nothing else, they should avoid the conference’s cellar and earn a trip to the conference tournament.

A conference championship between Gardner Webb and East Tennessee State would be worth of national attention because either team has the potential to upset an opponent in the NCAA Tournament.

     

A-Sun Tournament Recap

by - Published March 10, 2005 in Conference Notes




Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament Recap

by Michael Protos

Quarterfinals

No. 1 Gardner-Webb 64, No. 8 Troy 62

Despite poor shooting and no support from its bench, No. 1 Gardner-Webb slipped past No. 8 Troy 64-62, overcoming a four-point halftime deficit. Junior center Simon Conn was a beast in the paint, scoring 21 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass. The Bulldogs annihilated the Trojans in the rebounding category 41-21. With 19 offensive rebounds, Gardner-Webb managed to work through a sub-40 percent shooting day to advance to the semifinals. Senior forward Corey Hornsby finished his Troy career with 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

No. 2 Central Florida 81, No. 7 Mercer 68

No. 2 Central Florida started the defense of its conference title with an 81-68 quarterfinal win against No. 7 Mercer that wasn’t close by halftime. The Knights jumped out to a 45-24 halftime lead, which allowed Central Florida to give its bench players more playing time to rest the starters. Fresh players are a luxury in conference tournaments in which teams play several games in consecutive days. Sophomore guard Joshua Peppers led the Knights with 16 points and also grabbed six rebounds. Central Florida lit up the nets with three-pointers, sinking 12-of-27 attempts. The Bears were less fortunate, making only two three-pointers. Senior guard James Odoms led Mercer with 14 points.

No. 3 Belmont 67, No. 6 Georgia State 61

No. 3 Belmont used a three guard lineup to maximize the team’s perimeter game, and the Bruins hit 11 three-pointers en route to a 67-61 win against No. 6 Georgia State. Host of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, Belmont was led by junior guard Brian Collins, who scored 15 points, and senior guard Jese Snyder, who scored all 12 of his points from three-point territory. Georgia State had no answer for Belmont’s long-range accuracy and couldn’t keep pace at the end. Senior forward Sylvester Morgan junior guard Herman Favors each scored 12 points for the Panthers.

No. 4 Jacksonville 68, No. 5 Lipscomb 64

The No. 4 Dolphins can thank the No. 5 Bisons’ inability to sink critical free throws for Jacksonville’s 68-64 quarterfinal win. The Bisons missed 12 free throws to go 15-of-27 from the line. Jacksonville’s 50 percent field goal shooting approached Lipscomb’s 55 percent free-throw shooting, which created the room for the Dolphins to win. Junior guard Jesse Kimbrough had a great game with 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists. The Dolphins ruined an outstanding performance by junior guard James Poindexter, who scored a game-high 24 points.

Semifinals

No. 1 Gardner-Webb 77, No. 4 Jacksonville 76

The top-seeded Bulldogs once again escaped defeat with a 77-76 squeaker against No. 4 Jacksonville. Junior center Simon Conn had another amazing game with 29 points and 12 rebounds, including seven offensive rebounds. Conn single-handedly kept Gardner-Webb in the tournament in both the quarterfinals and semifinals. The Bulldogs rely almost entirely on their starters as the bench scored only three points. Four of the five starters played at least 36 minutes. The strategy was necessary for the Bulldogs to defeat the upset-minded Dolphins, but it also takes a toll on these players as they play so many minutes on such little rest.

Jacksonville’s upset bid fell short despite great efforts by junior guard Jesse Kimbrough and sophomore forward Haminn Quaintance, who each scored 16 points. Jacksonville shot better than 50 percent from the field but allowed the Bulldogs to win the rebounding battle and collect far too many offensive rebounds. A few defensive boards here and there would have allowed the Dolphins to advance to the championship game. Instead, Gardner-Webb will attempt to make its first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament appearance.

No. 2 Central Florida 66, No. 3 Belmont 61

Despite playing in front of a No. 3 Belmont-friendly crowd, No. 2 Central Florida moved within a game of a second consecutive Atlantic Sun title by winning 66-61. The Knights led 35-22 at halftime and outlasted the Bruins in the second half, despite a valiant run by the host. Senior guard Gary Johnson hit four three-pointers and scored 17 points to lead the Knights. But defense continued to be the modus operandi for Central Florida, as the Knights held Belmont to less than 39 percent shooting from the field.

Belmont facilitated Central Florida’s defensive pressure by settling for three-pointers. The Bruins shot 7-of-24 from behind the arc, but they had little choice after trailing by double digits at the half. Junior guard Brian Collins led the Bruins with 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds, six of which were on the offensive end. With 11 second chances, Belmont stayed closer than Central Florida would have preferred. But in the end, Central Florida advanced to play No. 1 Gardner-Webb for the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Championship

No. 2 Central Florida 63, No. 1 Gardner-Webb 54

Great play from junior guard Gary Johnson and suffocating defense secured No. 2 Central Florida a second consecutive Atlantic Sun title and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Johnson scored 19 points to lead the Knights, who held No. 1 Gardner-Webb to 16 first half points in a 63-54 win in the conference championship. The Bulldogs could not figure out the Knights’ defense until late in the second half, shooting only 35 percent from the field.

In addition to Johnson, the Knights got 14 points from sophomore guard Joshua Peppers as Central Florida’s backcourt outplayed its counterparts from Gardner-Webb. The Bulldogs’ junior center Simon Conn had a third consecutive strong game with 15 points and seven rebounds. But Central Florida contained him compared to his previous two performances with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Junior forward Brian Bender led the Bulldogs with 17 points.

When the Bulldogs attempted to rally in the second half, Central Florida finished the game with good free-throw shooting. The Knights hit 17-of-20 free throws to close out the deal and give Central Florida a second consecutive opportunity to pull off a major upset in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, the Knights gave the Pittsburgh Panthers all they could handle in the first round before losing a tight game. This year, Central Florida will likely draw a No. 14 or 15 seed, so the Knights will be scouting some of the major conferences’ top teams in the days to come.

     

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