Atlantic Sun Conference Preview
The Atlantic Sun was consistently one of the worst conferences in the country this past season, ranking No. 28 in conference RPI and finishing with the second-most non-conference losses. However, it did feature a decent league race, as Belmont won its final 10 games of the season, but still finished only two games ahead of Jacksonville. Four teams finished with at least 11 wins, and two more were 9-7. Despite the closeness of the title race, the conference tournament ended the same way the regular-season did – with Belmont emerging victorious, beating out Jacksonville in the championship game. In the NCAA Tournament, Belmont nearly pulled off the upset of the Tournament, falling to No. 2-seeded Duke, 71-70, despite a chance to win the game in the final seconds. The Bruins and Jacksonville could continue their battle for A-Sun supremacy atop the conference this year.
Favorites: Belmont loses Justin Hare, one of the best players in the program’s history, but does return four starters and will aim for its fourth straight 20-win season. Shane Dansby and Matthew Dotson form a dynamite frontcourt combo; both could be all-conference performers. Andy Wicke can really shoot the ball, while Alex Renfroe is a solid scorer and passer. Jordan Campbell will replace Hare. Jacksonville has the best shot to unseat Belmont at the top of the league. Forwards Lehom Colbert and Marcus Allen form one of the better tandems around, while Ben Smith might be the best point guard in the conference. Evan Jefferson and Ayron Hardy also return to the starting lineup for the Dolphins.
Contenders: Stetson also returns five starters from last season. The best of the bunch is all-conference forward Garfield Blair, who can carry the Hatters. A.J. Smith, Kris Thomas and Mark Lohuis form a very good perimeter trio, while Sheldon Oliver and Eric Diaz are solid up front. East Tennessee State is led by one of the better inside-outside combos in the Atlantic Sun in guard Courtney Pigram and forward Kevin Tiggs. Both are all-conference candidates. Mike Smith and Greg Hamlin will likely step in to vacant spots in the frontcourt.
Sleepers: Lipscomb loses Eddie Ard, one of the conference’s best players throughout his career. However, a solid group of players returns, including guards Josh Slater and Michael Lusk, and frontcourt performers Adnan Hodzic and Brandon Brown. Brown could be poised for a big season. Mercer knocked off USC in the season-opener last season, but finished 11-19 overall. All-conference guard James Florence leads the way for the Bears; he can really fill it up. Calvin Henry is an excellent player at both ends of the floor, while Mark Hall is another returning starter. Campbell is home to one of the most productive players in the country, Jonathan Rodriguez. He is a 20-10 lock every night out despite his 6-5 size. He teams with Kyle Vejraska to form a solid frontcourt tandem, while Junard Hartley is a solid distributor in the backcourt.
Rounding out the Pack: None of the following teams are eligible for the conference tournament, and will therefore not be in the running for the NCAA Tournament. Kennesaw State is led by the inside-outside duo of guard Kelvin McConnell and Texas Tech transfer Jay Mitchell, a 6-9 forward. Florida Gulf Coast owns one of the better forward tandems in the conference, with double-figure scorers Adam Liddell and Landon Adler. Both KSU and FGCU are both a year away from getting out of their transition period. South Carolina Upstate returns three starters from last season, including Bobby Davis, while North Florida finished last in the Atlantic Sun last season and will likely repeat that feat. Stan Januska is a double-figure scorer at the guard position.
Prediction: Belmont seems to always find a way to make its way to the top of the Atlantic Sun standings, but this year could be the season where the Bruins fall short. Jacksonville has the inside-outside balance to rival Belmont and point guard Ben Smith is just that good. Of course, Belmont has plenty of talent and will be a threat all season long. The loss of Justin Hare, though, might be the difference for the Bruins. He’s been an important cog for them for years, and they need to replace him in order to repeat as conference champions. I think Jacksonville will take advantage of that, and sneak in to get the regular-season and conference tournament championships.
Player of the Year: Jonathan Rodriguez, F, Campbell
G- James Florence, Mercer
G- Courtney Pigram, East Tennessee State
G- Ben Smith, Jacksonville
F- Jonathan Rodriguez, Campbell
F- Garfield Blair, Stetson
F- Calvin Henry, Mercer
F- Shane Dansby, Belmont
F- Kevin Tiggs, East Tennessee State
F- Lehom Colbert, Jacksonville
F- Marcus Allen, Jacksonville