Checking In On… the Atlantic Sun ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on November 18th, 2011
The Week That Was
- KSU Suspends Cummings: In a move that sent shock waves through the league, rookie head coach Lewis Preston announced Tuesday that he had indefinitely suspended Markeith Cummings for “conduct detrimental to the team.” The 6’7” Cummings led the A-Sun in scoring last season and was named the league’s preseason POY. Preston would not provide specific details in our interview with him the day after the announcement, but suspending Cummings is a clear sign that Preston has a long-term vision for building his program that he will not allow to be held hostage by any player – no matter how talented. For more on this, check out our Q&A with Preston at the end of this post.
- Respectable Showings, But No Signature Wins: While a number of teams acquitted themselves well in matchups with teams from higher-RPI conferences over the season’s first week, a headline-grabbing upset eluded the A-Sun. Obviously, the closest was Belmont’s 77-76 loss to No. 6 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Bruins nearly overcame a 16-point second-half deficit, but Andre Dawkins’ cold-blooded three-pointer with 16 seconds remaining sealed it. On the same night, Florida Gulf Coast and first-year coach Andy Enfield dropped a one-point decision at TCU, East Tennessee State led for much of the first half before cold shooting (29 percent) doomed them in an 11-point loss at Virginia Tech, and Jacksonville overcame a big early deficit to get back in the game and play Florida State to a standstill over the final 30 minutes in a 12-point defeat.
- Stetson’s Newcomers Make Statement: When Casey Alexander was hired last spring at Stetson, league observers predicted the longtime Belmont assistant would quickly energize the long-floundering program. So far, so good: Alexander got the Hatters off to a 2-0 start with solid wins over Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M. (The “That-Can’t-Be-Right” nugget of the week: The 2-0 start was the first for Stetson since 19-friggin’-52. Right after Dwight Eisenhower was elected president. Seriously.) Stetson is benefitting from more than just a new face on the bench. Adam Pegg, a 6’9” transfer from Delaware, was named A-Sun Newcomer of the Week after averaging 14.5 points in the two victories.
Quote of the Week: “When your team can come into Cameron Indoor Stadium and make that kind of a comeback… and almost win the game, then as I just told (the players), we’re no worse a team because we lost by one than we would have been had we won. We’d have been a lot happier if we had won by won, but the team’s the same. The two points are nothing.” –Belmont coach Rick Byrd
- Belmont (0-2) – Losing at Memphis is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, so why did the 16-point loss Tuesday feel like a little bit of a letdown? Amazing what a one-point loss to Duke can do for a team’s perception. After that near-upset, the Bruins suddenly became a trendy pick of observers nationwide (including this one) to beat Memphis, but the Tigers took a big early lead and from there stiff-armed Belmont to the finish line. But this team will be fine. The Bruins didn’t shoot well in either game – something that assuredly will come around – and they showed the potential to be a dominant rebounding team, matching Duke on the glass 33-33 and outrebounding Memphis 42-29.
- East Tennessee State (1-1) – The Bucs gave Virginia Tech all it could handle despite shooting less than 30 percent on the road, before rather easily taking care of Appalachian State, one of the better teams from the Southern Conference. Senior guard Adam Sollazzo is off to a great start, leading the team in all three major statistical categories (14.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.5 APG).
- North Florida (1-2) – The good news for the veteran Ospreys is they have the look of what could become a lockdown defensive team. Even in a season-opening 20-point loss at No. 17 Alabama, the problem wasn’t the Tide’s 64. (It was North Florida’s 44.) The Ospreys held ‘Bama to 40.7 percent shooting, and even pitched a shutout for a nearly eight-minute stretch of the first half. Such numbers against an SEC team bode well, but the Ospreys must improve their own offensive efficiency. After shooting just 23 percent against Alabama, NFU’s offense was less than inspiring in a 62-57 defeat of Savannah State followed by a 34.5 percent shooting performance against Florida. Nine and sometimes 10 seemingly interchangeable players split minutes fairly evenly – each getting somewhere between 14 and 24 minutes – but at some point coach Andy Driscoll is going to have to find a go-to scorer.
- Stetson (2-1) – Talk about a new sheriff in town: though the Hatters started 2-0 for the first time in a generation, first-year coach Casey Alexander sounded fairly unimpressed following an 18-point defeat of Florida A&M. “We have to take care of the ball better,” he said. “We have too many turnovers that are just careless. I don’t think we care enough to want to take care of the ball.” OK, then. Stetson turned it over 17 more times in a respectable 79-66 loss to Florida State on Wednesday night. We have a feeling Alexander will get the turnovers cleaned up eventually, but the Hatters are going to have to find someone who can score consistently besides Pegg.
- Florida Gulf Coast (2-1) – A very promising start for first-year coach Andy Enfield. Widely respected in coaching circles, Enfield earned a reputation as one of the game’s best shooting coaches in the NBA before playing a key role in helping to lift Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State program prior to taking the FGCU job. And Enfield had his team on the verge of scoring a road win in his first game as a head coach before falling by a point at TCU. Freshman guard Bernard Thompson has the look of a difference-maker, reaching double figures in all three games, including 15 on 7-10 shooting in his collegiate debut.
- Jacksonville (0-2) – The Dolphins clearly had the most disappointing first week in the A-Sun, following up a respectable 12-point loss at Florida State with a head-scratching overtime loss at Savannah State. Coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, and with a solid core of returners, Jacksonville was picked by RTC to finish second in the A-Sun this year. Two November losses – including one to an ACC program – aren’t cause for any bridge-jumping, but the Dolphins are going to have to find a facilitator to take control of this offense, establish a shot order and encourage a little sharing of the ball: through two games, Jacksonville has a total of 17 assists compared to 36 turnovers. Ouch.
- Lipscomb (1-2) – No team in the Atlantic Sun lost more from last season than Lipscomb. A home loss at the hands of Gardner-Webb – a good-not-great club from the Big South Conference – seems to back up the notion that this is going to be a major rebuilding year for 13th-year coach Scott Sanderson. Another newcomer to keep an eye on: freshman guard Zavion Williams scored 22 points and had six steals in the loss to G-W.
- USC Upstate (1-1) – Veteran coach Eddie Payne (381 career wins) has nothing but freshmen filling his four-player guard rotation. The good news is that those freshmen – headlined by 6’4” point guard Adrian Rodgers, who scored 22 points in his second game – can play. Still, they’re freshmen and it’s not like they’re surrounded by a lot of experience: the Spartans have only two seniors on the roster, neither of whom start. The key to this team is the continued development of 6’8” sophomore forwards Ricardo Glenn and Babatunde Olumuyiwa. Payne is platooning the two, who have the athleticism and strength to produce in the A-Sun. So far, they have combined to average 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
- Mercer (2-1) – When is an 18-point defeat more impressive than a nine-point win? Consider the strange first week Mercer put together, beginning with a pedestrian-at-best, frightening-at-worst 66-57 win over Division III Emory. (Keep in mind Division III programs don’t offer athletic scholarships, so the Bears basically edged a glorified intramural squad of future doctors and lawyers.) But two days later, at 25th-ranked Missouri, the Bears were within ten midway through the second half. (Of course, Mizzou coach Frank Haith likely had as much to do with keeping the Bears in the game as the Bears did.) Then, they went on the road to Furman and rode a 44-27 second half to a 20-point victory. After losing more than 60 percent of both its scoring and rebounding, Mercer was largely an unknown entering the season, but the Bears may have discovered something special in freshman guard Jibri Bryan, who came off the bench to score 19 against the Tigers.
- Kennesaw State (0-2) – Even with Cummings, the Owls were able to muster only 31 points in a season-opening 54-point shellacking at Wisconsin. KSU showed some fight a few nights later against Auburn, but this is a very scoring-challenged club that is going to take some licks for a while.
- North Florida @ Miami (11/19); @ No. 3 Ohio State (11/21): Andy Driscoll clearly wanted to challenge his veteran team early, but this three-game stretch in five days is just plain goofy (UNF lost to Florida, 91-55, on Thursday night). Forget final results here – the most important thing is whether or not the Ospreys can come out the other side having grown up some and with their confidence intact.
- Belmont @ Middle Tennessee State (11/20): Assuming Belmont beats Towson and MTSU beats UNC Greensboro the day before, this regional matchup in the EA Sports Maui Invitational looks a lot more interesting than it did just a few weeks ago. Middle Tennessee is 3-0 after rolling UCLA by 20. Blue Raiders center LaRon Dendy, a 6’9” senior, is a stud (15.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 2.3 BPG) and his matchup with Belmont’s two all-league posts – 6’10” Scott Saunders and 6’9” Mick Hedgepeth – will be crucial. In the end, expect that two-headed monster to win out and push the Bruins to the win.
Spotlight On KSU Head Coach Lewis Preston
Lewis Preston is one of three first-year coaches in the Atlantic Sun this season, taking over the program at Kennesaw State, a burgeoning institution of more than 24,000 students located in Metro Atlanta. Already Preston has made waves with his suspension of preseason A-Sun player of the year Markeith Cummings for “conduct detrimental to the team.” We caught up with the former Coastal Carolina, Notre Dame, Florida and Penn State assistant coach this week following his first two games as a head coach – road losses at Wisconsin and Auburn. KSU next plays Friday (11/18) at Chattanooga, one of the preseason favorites in the Southern Conference.
RTC: How does the suspension of Markeith Cummings change your team, and does he have an opportunity to find his way back to the team this season?
LP: First of all, he absolutely does have an opportunity to find his way back to the team. One of the most important things I have always been taught is that no one individual is more important than the group. I’m much more of a “we” guy than a “me” guy. What it does to our team is give a few other guys an opportunity. You can look at it two different ways, in a positive light or in a negative light. I’m much more of a positive guy than a negative guy. I don’t want to take an opportunity away from a young man, and Markeith has an opportunity to come back and I believe he still can have a tremendous year for us. But I want all of our players to understand that playing college basketball is a privilege and not a right.
RTC: What did you learn from the head coaches you have worked for that you have taken with you as you begin to build your own program?
LP: When I first got started at Coastal Carolina (under head coach Pete Strickland) I was always taught that this was a profession and you have to treat it that way. Like John Wooden said, treat every day like it is a masterpiece. (At Notre Dame) with Coach Brey, I learned about developing good coach-player relationships, and to not get too high after a win or too low after a loss, the importance of staying even keel. At Florida, Coach Donovan taught me so much about individual development and improvement, and pushing kids to their limits. At Penn State the last several years with Ed DeChellis it was really a combination of all those things with the mindset that you also have a family and you have to balance that out. They all have been great examples, and there is a reason why each in their own right has been successful.
RTC: What attracted you to the Kennesaw State job?
LP: Well, right away it was the location. I have to be honest about that. When you are 20 miles from downtown Atlanta and located right in the middle of what I feel is one of if not the hottest recruiting areas in country, that is important. Also the fact this school is just exploding, and gaining not only regional but national and global attention with the commitment it is making academically and athletically. The vision the school’s president, Daniel Papp, and our new athletic director, Vaughn Williams, bring to the table. Those things alone make this job very exciting and attractive. And also, at 41, I felt like it was time.
RTC: What has surprised you about the job so far?
LP: Every coach I ever worked for told me that you really won’t understand it until you get into it, but 85 percent of the job is non-basketball – the fundraising side, the speaking side, the administrative side, and things of that nature have been taking a little getting used to. But it is all part of helping your program to grow and help gain attention, so I am very happy to do it. It is all important, and the exciting part for me is getting the chance to meet new people and tell them what KSU is all about. We have an incredible story to tell right now.