2008-09 Conference Primers: #29 – Atlantic SunPosted by rtmsf on October 10th, 2008
Andrew Baker is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun and Southern conferences.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- Belmont Bruins (23-6) (17-3)
- ETSU Buccaneers (20-10) (15-5)
- Jacksonville Dolphins (18-11) (14-6)
- Stetson Hatters (16-13) (12-8)
- Lipscomb Bisons (15-14) (11-9)
- Mercer Bears (14-17) (9-11)
- Kennesaw State Fighting Owls (13-16) (7-13)
- Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (11-20) (6-14)
- Campbell Fighting Camels (10-18) (6-14)
- USC-Upstate Spartans (9-21) (5-15)
- UNF Ospreys (4-25) (1-19)
What You Need to Know (WYN2K).
Non-Conference. I know how far of a stretch this may seem, but all signs point to an improving Atlantic Sun Conference. Some of you will ask, ‘How can a conference that has been mired in the bottom three of the conference RPI be improving?’ Well it can’t get much worse than 29th in the conference RPI ratings, but there is proof of improvement just over the last two seasons. During the 2006-07 campaign the conference went 1-38 against the power conferences (including Mountain West and CUSA). During 2007-08 the conference went 8-41 with three wins coming over SEC teams (Gardner-Webb over Kentucky, Belmont over Alabama, and ETSU over Georgia). Look for the Atlantic Sun’s top five to play tougher against the power conference teams as all those teams are returning a great deal of talent and scoring. The conference also improved upon their overall non-conference record at 46-108 (.299) last year, with 17 more OOC wins than the previous year (excluding non-D-I games). Look for the Atlantic Sun to pull a few more upsets this fall.
Conference. There are two teams in the Atlantic Sun who are thinking about the three time defending champion Belmont Bruins with an incredible amount of rage. The East Tennessee Bucs and Jacksonville Dolphins are both coming into this season with huge chips on their shoulders after losing to Belmont in last season’s Atlantic Sun Championship semifinals and finals respectively. ETSU hates to be reminded of the circumstances, but for those that don’t know it’s worth watching the below video to see why they can’t wait for their games with Belmont. Jacksonville was never competitive in the final and got completely dismantled by Belmont’s signature three-point attack. Only seven teams are eligible for the A-Sun tournament this year out of the eleven in the conference, so expect a dogfight at the top to secure that first round bye into the semifinals.
Champion. Belmont Bruins (#15 NCAA) – Many will think this pick is made because the Bruins are the three time champions. This is partially correct. The real reason is that the Bruins are 30-2 against conference opposition in February and March over the last three years including the conference tournament. They simply find ways to win late in the season. While Jacksonville and ETSU may have more talented squads, the Bruins make up the difference with superb coaching. Belmont has the longest tenured coaching staff in the conference. Rick Byrd has brought his program along from NAIA in 1996 and found a successful formula for winning in this league that has helped them become the first back to back to back champions the A-Sun has ever seen. It also helps that the Bruins will return four starters (Dansby, Wicke, Renfroe, and Dotson) that have 42.1 PPG between them. Wicke and Dotson have not had a season where they haven’t come out as A-Sun Champions. However, it won’t be easy, as ETSU and Jacksonville won’t be far behind the defending champs.
Others Considered. With the departure of Gardner-Webb, the Atlantic Sun will be one big happy family again without the north and south divisions. What does this mean? Well it means teams like Jacksonville and Stetson will have to play more games against Belmont, Lispcomb, and East Tennessee, which for these teams usually ends in an L. This is not to say that Jacksonville won’t be good. They will be excellent, but they will have to play six games against these teams whereas they only played four against them last year, including the A-Sun Final against Belmont. Jacksonville did not come up with a single W against those three squads. Stetson didn’t fare much better, going 1-2 and losing to Garnder-Webb (North) in the A-Sun Quarters. Both teams will have to expect to run at least 4-2 against these teams to even have a shot at the title. Of the two, Jacksonville has the better shot. The Dolphins return fours starters and most of their production. If Stetson is to win then they will do it with defense. Stetson ranked first in the conference last season limiting conference opponents to only 67.4 PPG and only 27.8% from beyond the arc.
What can you say about East Tennessee State? They had the semifinal game in their grasp to move on to the finals, but one technical and a subsequent missed front end of a 1 & 1 doomed their season (see video above). Does ETSU have the talent? Of course they do. Kevin Tiggs (14.6 ppg & 5.6 rpg) and Courtney Pigram (15.8 ppg & 3.2 rpg) are two of the best players in the conference. ETSU’s supporting cast will be bolstered by the arrival of 6’11” Seth Coy and 6’6” PG Adam Sollazzo, whom ETSU considers one of their finest prospects ever. The presence of a big man should add some depth to the ETSU attack and make them a dangerous team come conference time. The Bucs offense is a potent one, but where they struggled was in assists/turnovers (.802 A/TO Ratio). Turning the ball over 20% of the time is just not going to cut it for any team that has aspirations of a trip to the Dance. Can the Bucs break their duck against Belmont? Maybe, but Coach Murray Bartow is going to have to find a way to get a W against the Bruins to get back to the promised land.
Important Games/Games to Watch: Make sure you jot down any game between that involves Belmont and the following teams: ETSU, Jacksonville, and Lipscomb. Belmont has an intense rivalry with Lipscomb being as that they are only two miles away on Belmont Boulevard and have always fought for attention in the saturated sports world of Nashville. The Battle of the Boulevard has gone into overtime five times since Lipscomb’s move into the Atlantic Sun in 2003-04 including the 2005-06 Atlantic Sun Championship Game. The ETSU v. Jacksonville games should be great as well. The most important game of the year of course is the A-Sun Tournament Championship Game in March as only one team in the Atlantic Sun is going to get to Dance.
- Atlantic Sun Championship Game (03/07/09)
RPI Boosters. The Atlantic Sun will be looking to improve on the eight wins they had over power conference opponents last year. ETSU is also going to be involved in the Charleston Classic which should add some quality competition, so keep an eye out on their schedule as well. Here are some dates to keep in mind for the top five:
Stetson @ Texas (11/14/08)
Jacksonville @ Florida State (11/15/08)
Jacksonville @ Georgetown (11/17/08)
Stetson @ Florida State (11/20/08)
Jacksonville @ Baylor (11/24/08)
Belmont @ Pittsburgh (11/25/08)
Jacksonville @ Georgia Tech (11/28/08)
Belmont @ Tennessee (12/20/08)
Stetson @ Miami (FL) (11/29/08)
Jacksonville @ Ohio State (12/17/08)
Lipscomb @ NC State (12/20/08)
Stetson @ Missouri (12/20/08)
Lipscomb @ Indiana (12/28/08)
Stetson @ Florida (12/30/08)
The Curse of Two. The Atlantic Sun has sent two teams to the dance only once. In 1993-94, the College of Charleston and Central Florida broke through as 12 and 16 seeds respectively. They both lost in the first round. The only teams that were in the league when that happened were the Mercer Bears and the Stetson Hatters. Both the Bears and the Hatters have seen only two winning seasons since.
University of Northern Fail. The UNF Ospreys have had a tough life since joining Division I. The Ospreys have only scrounged five Atlantic Sun wins in their first three seasons. New members Florida Gulf Coast and USC-Upstate both equaled and in FGCU’s case surpassed them with six wins in their maiden seasons. Coach Matt Kilcullen will most likely be feeling the heat this season if they don’t start seeing better results.
65-Team Era. The A-Sun is 3-24 during the modern era, and despite Belmont’s ridiculously close 71-70 loss to Duke last year, they have simply not been able to get over the hump in the NCAA Tournament during their otherwise impressive run.
Final Thoughts. The Atlantic Sun should be more fun to watch than it has been in recent years. Expect games between the top five schools to be knock-down, drag-outs. A massive amount of talent returns for these schools and it should be fascinating to watch. Don’t expect to see two bids out of this league unless someone wins a majority of their power OOC games and sweeps through the conference schedule only to lose in the final. Is the Atlantic Sun Conference one on the rise? Only if the Atlantic Sun can muster more OOC wins and their champion can again come close or win a NCAA Tournament game when March rolls around.