Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference.
A Look Back
- The Mercurial Bucs: East Tennessee State notched an impressive win last Wednesday at Dayton, which had a 40-game winning streak at UD Arena against non-conference foes. So with all that momentum behind them, the Buccaneers naturally went down to USC Upstate and face-planted, losing 60-59 in a game which saw them hit nine of their first 40 shots and blow no less than a dozen layups. That loss carried over to a 79-59 blowout defeat at College of Charleston, dropping them to 3-4 as they enter a very tough part of an eight-game road trip (at Mississippi State, at Ole Miss, three games in Cancun). While it‘s a long season, ETSU might regret that inexplicable loss at Upstate if it costs it a better seed come conference tournament time.
- The Spartan Life: Remember what we said two weeks ago about USC Upstate struggling to win a game? Well, the Spartans took that theory and pitched it right out the door of the Hodge Center with a double overtime win over UNC Asheville and the aforementioned upset of ETSU. Upstate hadn‘t beaten the Bucs in six prior tries, but got a great game from Torrey Craig. He scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but his best play was grabbing a loose ball along the baseline and turning a broken play into Chalmers Rogers’ game-winning layup with 3.6 seconds left. Craig already looks like a go-to guy for a program which hasn’t had one of those for a while.
- Player of the Week: Ayron Hardy, Jacksonville – The do-it-all 6‘5 senior continues to stuff the stat sheet the way dead Chicagoans used to stuff the ballot box back in the day. Hardy spearheaded the Dolphins’ home sweep of A-Sun foes Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast by averaging 11 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. Just missing the gold medal were Craig and North Florida’s Jerron Granberry. Craig’s 15 rebounds against ETSU were the third-most by a freshman in the country this year, while Granberry scored 20 points on just eight shot attempts, hitting 6-6 on three-pointers, in a Cancun victory over Prairie View A&M.
1. Belmont (6-2, 1-0)
Next Week: 12/16 vs. Kennesaw State
The Bruins keep on trucking with superior depth and defense. They‘ve forced at least 16 turnovers in each of their first eight games this season, including 27 from unbeaten Tennessee. Belmont’s only losses are to SEC East powers Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and neither one exactly ran and hid. In fact, the Bruins will get another crack at the Volunteers December 23 in Knoxville. Guard Jordan Campbell, who struggled badly from deep for the season’s first seven games, helped Belmont pull out an overtime win over Middle Tennessee State by canning eight threes. If the A-Sun were a horserace, Belmont would be a 2-to-1 favorite at this point.
2. Jacksonville (6-1, 2-0)
Next Week: 12/12 at Winthrop, 12/15 at Saint Louis
One has to love how the Dolphins are playing defense. In four of their six wins, they’ve held the opposition to 60 points or less, doing it with perhaps the conference’s smallest lineup. They pressure the ball and force the opposition into either turnovers or quick shots, then finish the possession by getting a rebound nearly 70 percent of the time. While there will be a couple of difficult non-conference tests prior to January, JU looks like a good bet for a 20-win season, barring injury or a sudden decrease in defensive efficiency
3. Lipscomb (5-2, 1-0)
Next week: 12/11 at Tennessee Tech
The best news out of a three-game winning streak is that the Bisons did it mostly with defense. The opposition’s field goal percentage has dropped to 43.7, which could give this team a serious chance to win a conference title with all the firepower it has on board. Adnan Hodzic is now averaging a double-double (20.3 points, 10.3 rebounds) and Josh Slater is starting to hit his shots, upping his shooting percentage to a more palatable 46.2. Jordan Burgason is a concern, though, as the normally deadeye 3-point shooter is down to 32.5 percent from the arc and has lost his spot in the starting lineup.
4. East Tennessee State (3-4, 0-1)
Next Week: 12/11 at Mississippi State
Losing games isn‘t coach Murry Bartow‘s biggest worry. It’s that an offense which looked a little more slump-proof going into the season suddenly can’t get out of the 50’s on a consistent basis. The problem is that the team’s jump-shooters aren’t consistently making shots or being aggressive enough to earn free throw opportunities. In the loss at College of Charleston, the Buccaneers garnered just four foul shots, which has nothing to do with officials and everything to do with a lack of aggression. Junior forward Isiah Brown is playing the best ball on a nightly basis, but got into it with Bartow early in the second half at Charleston and was benched for the game’s remainder. With five more games left in its eight-game road trip, ETSU doesn’t need any more issues in addition to those it already has
5. Campbell: (4-3)
Next Week: 12/10 vs. Western Carolina, 12/16 at USC Upstate
Lorne Merthie is becoming more of a go-to player with Jonathan Rodriguez having graduated after what seemed like a ten-year career. Merthie is averaging a team-high 14.1 points per game and canning 52 percent from the three-point line. The Camels are shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor, although their schedule hasn’t exactly been the toughest. They are awaiting the return of forward Eric Griffin (12.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG), who’s missed the last two games with an ankle injury
6. North Florida: (4-4, 1-1)
Next Week: 12/11 at Purdue, 12/14 at Texas
Back to the death march for the Ospreys, who missed a good chance to improve to 2-0 in the conference by losing for the second straight year at home to Stetson. Four of their next five games are of the “paycheck” variety against Purdue, Texas, Maryland and Kansas State. To have any chance of surviving that stretch, they’ll have to cut down on turnovers, as they’re averaging 18.5 per game. First-shot defense remains solid (41.9 percent from the field, 32.7 percent on 3s) but UNF is allowing 16 offensive rebounds per game, which helps the opposition score 74 points per game
7. Kennesaw State (2-5)
Next week: 12/11 at SIU Edwardsville, 12/16 at Belmont
With 15 days to rest, take final exams and work on weaknesses exposed during the first seven games, the Owls are ready for the season‘s bulk to begin. What they must do is find more scoring threats besides Markeith Cummings and Spencer Dixon, as well as improve first-shot defense (46.6 percent from the field, 40.5 percent on threes) and rebounding (minus 3.9 per game). If KSU can do a few of those things, it will be a tough out for any A-Sun team
8. Stetson (3-4, 1-1)
Next week: 12/12 at Miami (Fla.), 12/15 at Florida State
After the horror of a home loss against D-II foe Palm Beach Atlantic, the Hatters didn‘t sulk, winning two of their next three, including a conference road victory over North Florida. Freshman Aaron Graham can flat-out shoot the rock, indicated by his 14-25 numbers from three-point range. He looks like Larry Bird in comparison to the rest of this crowd, which is just 18-88 from beyond the arc. But Stetson is making improvements in first-shot defense (44.2 percent from the floor) and is outrebounding the opposition. When it hits more free throws (60.7 percent) and cuts its 17.1 turnovers per game down to 15 or fewer, the win total will go up
9. USC Upstate: (2-6, 1-0)
Next week: 12/11 at N.C. State, 12/16 vs. Campbell
As we suggested would happen two weeks ago, senior guard Josh Chavis began finding the range from the three-point line. In wins over UNC Asheville and East Tennessee State, Chavis hit 6-of-19, pushing his season percentage over the Mendoza line at 22.4 percent. The Spartans’ stunner over ETSU not only gives them a boost of confidence they badly needed, it fired a warning shot for conference opponents who may have circled Upstate road trips as a win. While winning on the road may be next to impossible for this young, undersized squad, take them lightly at your risk when traveling to Spartanburg
10. Florida Gulf Coast: (2-5, 0-2)
Next week: 12/15 at Ohio State
The good news is that Ole Miss transfer Kevin Cantinol is eligible for the trip to the second-ranked Buckeyes, giving the Eagles a much-needed 6‘9, 250-pound slab of beef inside. The bad news is Cantinol might not make much difference for this team on either side of the floor. Despite the efforts of Anthony Banks (15.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Reed Baker (17.7 PPG), FGCU is really this bad. Good thing that coach Dave Balza won a contract extension prior to the season because there might not be many wins left for the Eagles this year
11. Mercer: (2-7, 0-2)
Next Week: Dec. 10 vs. Navy
The good news for the Bears is this is their only game in a 19-day period. The bad news is they still have 20 more games to play this year, perhaps more if they can qualify for the A-Sun tourney on their home court. That will be tough, since this team does nothing well except force turnovers (17.1 per game). It’s clearly a transitional year for this program and it can’t be good for the future that the top three scorers are all seniors
Playing the Percentages
Every week, we’ll look at an intriguing individual or team stat and determine fluke or trend. This week, we zero in on Florida Gulf Coast‘s Anthony Banks, a live body who can crash the offensive glass with the best of them. After grabbing 100 offensive caroms last year, Banks owns 31 in his first seven games this season, placing him atop the conference and in a tie for 8th nationally. We’re calling trend here. Banks is one of those guys with a nose for the ball and the quickness to go get it no matter where it is. If the Eagles get good in the next three years, you can bet the Banks this sophomore will have had a lot to do with it.
A Look Ahead
- With most teams either approaching or in the middle of exam periods, schedules are fairly light. Belmont tries for its second A-Sun win on the 16th when it welcomes Kennesaw State to Nashville.
- USC Upstate tries to keep the upset train on the tracks when it welcomes Campbell to the tiny Hodge Center Dec. 16 for the Camels‘ conference opener.
- North Florida will try to make the conference look respectable to Power Six audiences when it visits Top 25 inhabitants Purdue and Texas in a four-day span.
- Lipscomb’s recent improvement on defense will be tested Saturday night with a trip to Tennessee Tech, which loves to push the tempo.