2009-10 Conference Primers: #25 – Atlantic Sun

Posted by rtmsf on October 13th, 2009


Ryan Dunn is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference. Click here for all of our 2009-10 Season Preview materials.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Lipscomb Bisons                             (20-9, 15-5)
  2. Jacksonville Dolphins                     (19-11, 14-6)
  3. Mercer Bears                                   (17-15, 12-8)
  4. Campbell Camels                            (17-13, 11-9)
  5. East Tennessee State Bucs              (15-15, 11-9)
  6. Belmont Bruins                               (13-17, 10-10)
  7. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles              (14-15, 9-11)              
  8. Stetson Hatters                               (13-16, 8-12)
  9. North Florida Ospreys                    (11-19, 7-13)
  10. Kennesaw State Owls                   (9-23, 5-15)
  11. USC-Upstate Spartans                  (4-25, 4-16)

Preseason All-Conference Team (all stats 2008-09 season):

  • James Florence (G), Mercer                  20.8 points, 3.7 assists
  • Ben Smith (G), Jacksonville                   16.9 points, 4.0 assists
  • Jonathan Rodriguez  (F), Campbell        15.6 points, 8.3 rebounds
  • Mike Smith (F), ETSU                               15.3 points, 7.7 rebounds
  • Adnan Hodzic (C), Lipscomb                17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds

6th Man.  Daniel Emerson, Mercer.  Yes I know Emerson will not come off the bench but since he is such a good player and he wasn’t mentioned on my all-conference team I wanted to give him some recognition.  Emerson was the only player in the league last year to average a double-double.  

Impact Newcomer.  Justin Tubbs, ETSU.  Transfer from Alabama, very athletic and should provide immediate help in the ETSU backcourt.

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What You Need To Know.

  • While the A-Sun has 11 teams in the league, only nine teams are eligible for postseason play as Florida Gulf Coast and USC-Upstate are still completing their transition from Division 2to Division 1.  This upcoming season marks the first year that North Florida and Kennesaw State will be eligible for postseason play as they have now completed their transition to Division I.  Only eight spots are reserved for the conference tournament meaning that only one eligible team will miss out.  This year’s tournament will be played at Mercer’s University Center in Macon, Georgia.
  • Some headlines that made news this offseason included a coaching change at North Florida as they named former Baylor assistant Matthew Driscoll head coach.  Driscoll has put together quite the coaching staff that features former Campbell assistant Bobby Kennan, former Head Coach at Lander College Bruce Evans, and Jeremy Shyatt, former Director of Basketball Operations at VCU and son of former Clemson head coach and current Florida top assistant Larry Shyatt.  Driscoll and his staff brought in nine newcomers to go along with six returning players.  Five of the newcomers earned all-state honors in the state of Florida. 
  • The league features two of the more premier mid-major players in Campbell’s Jonathan Rodriguez and Mercer’s James Florence.  Both have a chance to rewrite their school and conference record books.  Florence is the active leader for career scoring in the league with Rodriguez following in second.  Rodriguez stands second on the Atlantic Sun’s career double-double list with 39, and is just three off the record.  Florence currently sits in fifth on the Mercer all-time scoring list.  Both players should indeed break numerous records and if you haven’t seen them play it would definitely be worth your money to see them in action this season.

Predicted Champion.  Lipscomb (NCAA Seed: #15) – The Bisons return 82 percent of their scoring from last year as they only lost two players to graduation.  They return four starters from last year’s squad that finished fourth in the league and reached the semifinals of the conference tournament.  Adnan Hodzic, the 6’9 255 pound junior from Bosnia returns after being named A-Sun First Team All-Conference last year averaging just over 17 points and over 7 boards per contest.  Hodzic nearly doubled his scoring average from his freshman to sophomore seasons.  Hodzic wasn’t the only member of the Bisons to earn accolades last year as Brian Wright was also named to the A-Sun All-Freshman team.  Josh Slater and Brandon Brown also return for Lipscomb as both contributed close to double digit scoring outputs per contest.  To go along with the returning players the Bisons have also added five newcomers that includes four freshmen.  Johnny Lee, a senior point guard transfer from George Washington has been added to the roster for his final year of eligibility.  Lee was a backup point guard during his time with the Colonials and should provide some immediate help for the Bisons.  The Bisons seem to have all the pieces together for an Atlantic Sun Championship if Hodzic can be as dominant on the interior as he was last season.  He should be the best big man in the league and should compete for player of the year honors at the same time.  In a very competitive league Lipscomb will probably not run away with the league title but should claim top honors and earn a #15 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  The Bisons do have size in the paint but do not have the quickest or most athletic guards in the world so I do not expect them to upset a top seed in the “big dance.”

Top Contenders:

  • Jacksonville.  The Dolphins return four of their top five scorers from last year including one of the best point men in the league in Ben Smith.  They will miss forward Marcus Allen who graduated last year.  Allen, a 6’7 rugged frontcourt player, led the team in rebounding this past year and I worry that JU will truly miss his toughness in the paint.  They should definitely be a top tier team in the league but I worry about their frontcourt play which could prevent them from winning the league.
  • Mercer.  The Bears on paper may have one of the most talented squads in the league but the problem is that this has been the case for the last couple of years and they have somewhat underachieved each year.  They have the best pure scorer in the league in James Florence but he will have to show up in big games and learn how to contribute in other ways when his shot isn’t falling.  Daniel Emerson is one of the best and most consistent big men in the league after averaging a double-double last year.  They also return four out of their five starters from last year, and have added nine newcomers to provide some much needed depth.  The talent is definitely there for the Bears but my question with this team is will they come out and play night in and night out?  If they can, look for them to finish towards the top of the league with a chance at the league title.
  • East Tennessee State.  I have similar concerns for ETSU as I did for JU.  Although they lost their top two scorers from last year’s conference championship team, I have more of a concern with their post play.  6’8 forward Isaiah Brown is the only returning post man with any significant experience and he is just a sophomore.  Brown did show glimpses of promise last year but he is a bit undersized to be playing the “5” position.  This team, however, may have the quickest and most athletic guards in the league to go along with 6’6 forward and top returning player, Mike Smith, who should be in the running for conference player of the year.  Look for the Bucs to really push the tempo with their guards and if they can play solid defensively look for them to compete for the league title again.
  • Campbell.   The Camels are an experienced club that returns four out their starting five from a year ago as well as their top reserves.  One key loss from a year ago is 6’10 center Matt Gwynne, who left the team after suffering from academic issues.  6’8 senior Kyle Vejraska is now the biggest body on the roster and just like ETSU’s Isaiah Brown he isn’t a true “5” man.  But Vejraska can really shoot it from the outside and can cause some matchup problems for defenses.  The Camels are pretty big at every other position so I don’t quite worry about their size inside because they can make it up with the size at the other positions.  All league player Jonathan Rodriguez returns for his senior season and looks to break many team and league records.  With their experience and talent, the Camels should compete for the league title but they MUST win road games.  The Camels have been abysmal on the road in the league under Coach Robbie Laing and they most win some games away from Buies Creek to have a chance at the league title. 

Top 5 RPI Boosters:

  • Nov. 13, 2009 – Florida Gulf Coast @ Michigan State   (7pm) ESPN360
  • Nov. 14, 2009 – Belmont @ Washington  (10pm)
  • Nov. 24, 2009 – Lipscomb @ Ohio State    (7pm)  Big Ten Network
  • Dec. 2, 2009 – ETSU @ Tennessee (7:30pm)
  • Dec. 29, 2009 – Belmont @ Kansas (9pm) ESPNU

Key Conference Games:

  • Feb. 7, 2010 – Jacksonville @ Lipscomb  (2pm)
  • Feb. 19, 2010 – ETSU @ Campbell  (7pm) CSS  
  • Feb. 25, 2010 – Campbell @ Jacksonville  (7:15pm)
  • Feb. 27, 2010 – ETSU @ Jacksonville  (2pm)
  • Feb. 27, 2010 – Mercer @ Lipscomb    (4:15pm)

Digging Deeper:

  • Willie Jackson (1980-84) of Centenary and Courtney Pigram (2005-09) of ETSU are the only two players in Atlantic Sun history to reach the 2,000 career point plateau.  This year two more players should almost certainly join them.  James Florence of Mercer currently sits at 1,737 career points which already ranks him 11th all-time in the league.  Campbell’s Jonathan Rodriguez also has a chance to reach the 2,000 point plateau as he currently has 1,631 career points which ranks him 18th all-time in the conference.  Rodriguez actually ranks 8th all-time in rebounding as well in the A-Sun and could become the league’s all-time leading rebounder if he can pull down around 10 per game.  Rodriguez and Florence have also been named to the A-Sun All-Conference team in each of their first three seasons in the league, but neither has been named player of the year thus far.
  • ETSU and Belmont are the only current A-Sun members to have won the conference finals since 1985 when Mercer took the title.  Remember, there has been a good amount of turnover in the league since its inception.  Teams such as College of Charleston, UCF, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Florida Atlantic, Troy and many others were powerhouses of the league during the 80s and 90s.

Fun With KenPom.  Last year it was Jacksonville who loaded up on a tough nonconference schedule (#43 nationally), going 3-9 during a slate that included games against Georgetown, Ohio St. and Baylor, supposedly toughening the Dolphins up for the A-Sun regular season.  Despite going 15-5 in the conference schedule, ETSU (at 14-6 and a #162 rated nonconf schedule) was instead the team that won the conference tourney and hence the automatic bid to the NCAAs.  It makes you wonder if teams in the traditional one-bid leagues such as the A-Sun should focus exclusively on getting ready for conference season versus loading up on difficult guarantee-games early in the season (since their SOS isn’t going to earn them an at-large bid anyway).     

NCAA Tournament History.  As mentioned above, the Atlantic Sun has experienced a large amount of turnover in its three-decade history.  Thus, all three of its NCAA wins (3-29, .094) were the product of teams who are no longer in the league (Georgia St., College of Charleston, Arkansas-Little Rock).  That said, the winner of this league in recent year has consistently scared the bejeezus out of an unsuspecting #2 or #3 seed.  In six of the last eight years, the A-Sun champion has stayed within twelve points of its first round opponent, and Belmont very nearly took Duke down in 2008. 

Final Thoughts.  This should be a very interesting year for the A-Sun because of the extreme parity in the league.  This could be one of the closest races in recent memory for the conference race.  Teams such as Lipscomb, Jacksonville, Campbell and Mercer all have an experienced nucleus of players returning while Belmont and East Tennessee State still look to be talented even though they must reload.  Teams of the A-Sun have had much success the last few years against the power conferences so look for a few more upsets this year as there is number of good opportunities.  Just last season the Atlantic Sun ranked 16th in the conference RPI ratings which is a drastic improvement from years past.  This year should be no different with a good number of teams in the league with a potential winning percentage over the .500 mark.  The conference has proven it can compete in the NCAA Tournament as we have seen the last couple of years with Belmont almost knocking off Duke and last year ETSU going down to the wire with #1 seed Pittsburgh.  So expect no different this year with the many experienced teams in the league.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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