RTC Conference Primers: #21 – Atlantic Sun Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 16th, 2011

Will Rothschild is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun. You can find him on Twitter at @warothschild.

Reader’s Take I

Top Storylines

  • Belmont’s Last Dance In The A-Sun: In May, realignment hit the conference when it was announced that Belmont will join the Ohio Valley Conference starting in the 2012-13 season, meaning this campaign will mark the Bruins’ A-Sun swan song. The repeal of a stipulation requiring every OVC program to field a football team (which Belmont doesn’t have) appeared to be the final hurdle. Belmont’s new home is a step up in terms of competition and is more favorable for its travel schedule.  As the Bruins have represented the Atlantic Sun in the NCAA Tournament four of the last six seasons, a new leader will have to rise.

Mick Hedgepeth Leads Belmont In Its Final Season As A Member Of The Atlantic Sun. (Getty Images)

  • New Coaches To Watch: On paper, the A-Sun’s three first-year coaches look to be as good a collective group as has ever entered the conference. How they deliver – and how quickly – both on the court and in recruiting will be worth watching. All three – Casey Alexander at Stetson, Andy Enfield at Florida Gulf Coast, and Lewis Preston at Kennesaw State – inherit programs that lost 20 or more games last season. All three also are first-time head coaches who were highly-regarded assistants at successful programs: Alexander at Belmont, Enfield at Florida State, and Preston at Notre Dame, Florida (where he was on the staff of the repeat title teams in ’06 and ’07) and Penn State.
  • ETSU Hopes To Stay Afloat: In eight seasons in Johnson City, coach Murray Bartow has taken the Bucs to three NCAA Tournaments while averaging just under 20 wins per season and finishing third or better in the standings five times. Most recently, the Bucs enjoyed a 24-win campaign in 2010-11, earning a spot in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and advancing to the semifinals of that event, marking the first time in school history the team had captured two postseason victories in the same season. During the regular season, the Bucs enjoyed their highest RPI ranking since 2004, and won road games against quality opponents such as Mississippi State and Dayton. But to keep ETSU near the top of the A-Sun this year will require Bartow to do one of his best jobs. Gone are POY Mike Smith and two other standouts who combined to average more than 42 points per game, a whopping 60 percent of ETSU’s offensive production. Bartow welcomes in another highly-regarded recruiting class and welcomes back 6’4″ forward Tommy Hubbard, a major talent who missed all but four games last season with an injury. How well Hubbard regains his old form and meshes with the talented newcomers will determine whether this proud program maintains its traditional perch among the top three or gets overtaken by one of several improving programs.
  • Bruins Poised For A Cinderella Run: For what has become one of the best mid-major programs in the country, the only thing missing on Belmont’s“To Do” list is a run in the NCAA Tournament. After nearly knocking off Duke in 2008, the 13th-seeded Bruins lost to four-seed Wisconsin last March and are seeking their fifth NCAA tournament trip in the past seven seasons. So Belmont is well past any “We’re just glad to be here” feelings about making it to the Dance. With four starters and all but two of its 11-player rotation back from a 30-5 (19-1 A-Sun) team, the Bruins have the look of a team that could become a national darling in March.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Belmont (19-1)
  2. North Florida (15-5)
  3. Jacksonville (13-7)
  4. ETSU (13-7)
  5. Kennesaw State (10-10)
  6. Florida Gulf Coast (8-12)
  7. USC Upstate (7-13)
  8. Lipscomb (6-14)
  9. Mercer (6-14)
  10. Stetson (3-17)

All-Conference Picks

Opponents Better Be Careful When They See Kennesaw State's Markeith Cummings Approaching. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

  • G:  Ian Clark, Belmont: Stat-heads and traditional followers alike love what Clark brings to the table, specifically, his shooting ability (both inside and out) and ball control.
  • F:  Markeith Cummings, Kennesaw State: Cummings is the leading returning scorer in the league at 18.3 points per game. The 6’7″ junior presents matchup problems for every team in the conference.
  • F: Torrey Craig, USC Upstate: A long-armed wing who can score from the perimeter and inside, Craig ranked in the top eight in the league in scoring, rebounding, and three-pointers made per game en route to earning Freshman of the Year honors a season ago.
  • F:  Tommy Hubbard, ETSU: A tough, if undersized, forward who can score and rebound, Hubbard’s greatest asset is defense. He can guard four positions and was named the league’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
  • C:  Mick Hedgepeth, Belmont: The league’s best true post player, the 6’9″ Hedgepeth averaged nearly 11 points and six rebounds while shooting 54% last season.

6th Man: Jerron Granberry, North Florida, G: There are a few worthy candidates here such as ETSU’s Isiah Brown and Granberry’s teammate, Andy Diaz, but Granberry gets the nod here as the face of one the A-Sun’s top contenders.

Predicted Champion

Belmont (NCAA Seed:  #13): You could pick against Belmont, but you’d be foolish. In fact, the real suspense barring a rash of injuries isn’t whether the Bruins will repeat, but whether or not they can outdo last season’s 19-1 league mark and run the table. With four starters and nine of their top 11 returning from a 30-win team, the Bruins might even make an appearance in the national top 25 at some point. A 13 or even a 12-seed seems more than plausible, and if Rick Byrd’s program was ever positioned to advance, this is the season.

Top Contenders

  • Jacksonville (NIT): The Dolphins should have an outstanding season, but the Atlantic Sun remains a one-bid league for now – barring a Jacksonville upset of Belmont in the conference tourney title game. Otherwise, expect Jacksonville to make its second straight NIT appearance.
  • North Florida (CIT) : There was just one senior on last season’s team, and even so, he was seldom-used. UNF lost a staggering six conference games by five or fewer points, so if the pendulum swings back, expect Matthew Driscoll‘s troops to rebound.
  • ETSU (CIT): On paper, this looks like a rebuilding year that could go sideways, but it’s hard to bet against Bartow. He’ll find a way to fashion the Bucs into a solid team.
  • Kennesaw State (CIT): Only Belmont and North Florida return more scoring and no one returns more rebounds than KSU. With the best scorer in the league and a new coach, optimism abounds around this program.

Reader’s Take II

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Lewis Preston, Head Coach, KSU: Yes, it’s odd to mention a guy who is yet to coach his first game as someone to keep an eye on, but Preston comes to KSU with an impressive assistant coaching resume and two national championship rings from his time at Florida. Preston is highly regarded in coaching circles, and he is stepping into a situation set up for the right coach to make an impact and draw attention from other programs. KSU returns the league’s top scorer and a nice collection of experience and talent. With his contacts and experience and KSU’s location in metro Atlanta, Preston should be able to recruit well. If Preston can turn this program into a winner, expect other ADs to come calling.

Spotlight on… the A-Sun’s Improving RPI

The Atlantic Sun finished last season as the 17th-ranked conference in the national RPI, ahead of such conferences as the Ohio Valley, the Southern Conference, MAC, Summit League, Big South and Sun Belt. The league further enhanced its reputation thanks to the work of ETSU and Jacksonville in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, in which Jacksonville went on the road to beat East Carolina before falling to SMU and the Bucs advanced to the semifinals.

Final Thoughts

Belmont will get a chance to show the nation just how good it is in early matchups at Duke (Nov. 11) and Memphis (Nov. 15). Regardless of the final score of those games, it would be surprising if the Bruins don’t acquit themselves well. With always-strong ETSU, steadily improving programs such as Jacksonville and North Florida, and exciting young talent and/or coaches in places like USC Upstate, Kennesaw State, Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson, the Atlantic Sun is a conference on the rise. Ultimately, nothing will enhance the league’s rep as much as an NCAA tournament win (or two) — and with an absolutely loaded Belmont team, this could be the Atlantic Sun’s best season ever.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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