Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference.
A Look Back
- The Agony Ends… and Resumes: While no one picked Kennesaw State to win the conference this year, no one thought it would have a ten-game losing streak, either. But that‘s what happened as the Owls played poor defense and were too shot-dependent. KSU broke the spell with a 78-71 home win against USC Upstate Jan. 3, with the Spartans getting 23 points from Kelvin McConnell and 16 rebounds from Aaron Anderson. But it went back to losing two nights later when it allowed East Tennessee State to light it up for 51 percent shooting in an 80-69 decision.
- Stetson Makes Lipscomb Smell: While no one would dare pick the Hatters over the Bisons in a seven-game series, Stetson did send the conference a message January 3 with a 76-66 upset in DeLand, Florida. Freshman point guard Corey Walden lit it up for 23 points and eight assists as the Hatters erupted for 58 points in the second half. It was another reminder why Lipscomb, as currently constituted, might never win anything that truly matters. It just doesn’t make enough of a commitment to defense.
- Player of the Week: Adam Sollazzo, East Tennessee State: It‘s safe to say no one saw this coming. Sollazzo lost his job less than a month ago as coach Murray Bartow tried a point guard-less lineup for three games. Now he‘s the king of the A-Sun hill after averaging 16 points and 4.5 assists per game in wins over Mercer and Kennesaw State, canning a game-winning shot against Mercer. Just missing the gold medal is teammate Mike Smith, who averaged 14.3 points and nine rebounds during the Bucs’ trip to Cancun, and North Florida’s Parker Smith, who dropped 20 and 25 points on Maryland and Kansas State, respectively, in the dying days of 2010.
1. Belmont (12-3, 4-0)
Next Week: 1/8 vs. North Florida, 1/10 vs. Jacksonville, 1/13 vs. Lipscomb
The beat goes on for the Bruins, which followed a solid non-conference win over Miami (OH) with easy conference road wins over Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson. Coach Rick Byrd netted the 500th win of his impressive career at Stetson and figures to tack on about 15 more to that total this year. Byrd unleashed his bench on the Hatters and it made the difference as they outscored Stetson‘s reserves 44-2, led by 14 from freshman J.J. Mann. Belmont‘s dominance has caught the eye of mid-major pollsters that are making it a regular in their top 25s. If this continues, a nation may notice this squad in March.
2. Jacksonville (9-3, 3-0)
Next Week: 1/8 at Lipscomb, 1/10 at Belmont, 1/13 vs. USC Upstate
For just the second time in their A-Sun tenure, the Dolphins have won their first three conference games. To match a 5-0 start in 2007-08, all they have to do is sweep their Nashville road trip against Lipscomb and Belmont. Don’t discount this undersized but super-quick team, which has had seven different players lead the team in scoring during the first 12 games. JU continues to play excellent first-shot defense (40.7 field goal percentage, 29.2 3-point percentage) and force turnovers at a clip of more than 17 per game. One major concern is that it’s making only 62.5 percent of its free throws.
3. East Tennessee State (8-7, 3-1)
Next week: 1/8 vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 1/10 vs. Stetson, 1/13 at North Florida
Looks like a return to A-Sun play was the cure for what ailed the Bucs. In the last four games, they‘ve topped 70 points three times, thanks largely to Sollazzo‘s increased contribution on offense. Mike Smith and Justin Tubbs have found the range more lately, but the biggest news is the team‘s commitment to the “pack line“ defense invented by Dick Bennett and perfected by Tony Bennett during his time at Washington State. With the exception of allowing Kennesaw State to hit 51 percent from the floor, the Buccaneers have taken to the pack approach. The roll should continue against Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson.
4. Lipscomb (8-5, 3-1)
Next Week: 1/8 vs. Jacksonville, 1/10 vs. North Florida, 1/13 at Belmont
Coach Scott Sanderson said it best after the Bisons‘ inexplicable loss to Stetson January 3. “There are no free games in this league. That loss stung. There’s no way around it.” There’s also no way around the fact that this team refuses to make a consistent commitment to defense, which isn’t just something you can do when you feel like it. That Lipscomb continues to permit opponents to score 78.5 ppg and shoot better than 45 percent indicates that either Sanderson’s message isn’t getting through or that there are a bunch of below-average defenders on this roster. Until Adnan Hodzic, Josh Slater and Co. mix in a few possessions of defense with their fun-to-watch offense, they won’t win any championships.
5. North Florida: (5-9, 2-1)
Next Week: 1/8 at Belmont, 1/10 at Lipscomb, 1/13 vs. East Tennessee State
OK, so the Ospreys are 5-9 and Campbell is 7-6. Yet we rank them about the Camels for two reasons — head-to-head result and strength of schedule. Not only did North Florida win straight-up January 5 in Buies Creek, it’s played a brutal schedule, cashing checks in exchange for beatings and lessons. What we’ve learned about coach Matthew Driscoll’s team is that when they play someone their own size (i.e.: the A-Sun), they’re pretty darn competitive. The addition of Parker Smith has given this team a breakout scorer they didn’t have last year. The Ospreys will stay around .500 in the league and beat people they shouldn’t.
6. Campbell: (7-6, 1-3)
Next Week: 1/7 vs. Kennesaw State, 1/10 vs. Mercer
Losing at two-time A-Sun tourney champion ETSU is one thing. Losing at home against a Jacksonville team good enough to win at Florida is another. Losing at home against undermanned North Florida is inexcusable. Yet the Camels did it in spite of shooting 55 percent from the field. The most shocking thing about this defeat was that they committed 26 turnovers against an Ospreys team which isn’t known for its fierce defensive pressure. Even point guard Junard Hartley, who’s normally careful with the ball, hacked up five turnovers. Campbell needs to sweep the Georgia schools because its Nashville trip awaits.
7. Stetson (4-10, 2-2)
Next week: 1/8 at USC Upstate, 1/10 at East Tennessee State
It says something for the Hatters that their 17-point loss to Belmont on Wednesday was the closest any A-Sun team has come to the Bruins so far. Their upset of Lipscomb should tell everyone in the conference not to take it easy when visiting central Florida. The 1-2 punch of Corey Walden and Ridge Graham looks like quite a nucleus for emotional coach Derek Waugh, who appears to have found another good piece in 6‘8, 280-pound freshman center Steve Forbes. He’s taken a spot in the starting lineup and delivered a 12-point outing against Belmont.
8. Mercer (4-11, 1-3)
Next week: 1/10 at Campbell
There may be no hotter player in the league at the moment besides senior forward Brian Mills, who has reached double figures in eight straight games, going off for a career-high 30 points in a January 5 win over USC Upstate. Mills is averaging 19.3 ppg and 8.8 rebounds in conference games. Now for the bad news: Besides the losing, 35 of the team’s 41 double-figure scoring games this year have come from seniors. It sure doesn’t say much for the seven players coach Bob Hoffman recruited. Unless some players suddenly blossom over the next 16 games, Mercer could miss the conference tournament on its home floor.
9. Kennesaw State: (3-11, 1-3)
Next week: 1/7 at Campbell
There are some good individual performances going on this year, such as the rebounding of Aaron Anderson, who hauled in 16 against USC Upstate, and the play of point guard Spencer Dixon, who‘s become one of the league‘s top combo guards. But there is nothing good going on when it comes to defense. Opponents are hitting 47.3 percent of their field goals and averaging more than 76 points per game. Its regression from last year makes this the conference’s biggest disappointment to this point.
10. USC Upstate: (2-12, 1-3)
Next week: 1/8 vs. Stetson, 1/10 vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 1/13 at Jacksonville
It‘s becoming apparent that as the losses pile up, the Spartans are still giving their fans hope for next year and the year beyond. Freshmen Torrey Craig and Babatunde Olumuyiwa are forming what could be a pretty good 1-2 punch in the frontcourt, while another freshman, Chandler Hash, is beginning to look like a guy who can hit 3-pointers in bunches. Home games against the central Florida schools this week could give Upstate a shot at back-to-back wins.
11. Florida Gulf Coast: (3-10, 0-4)
Next Week: 1/8 at East Tennessee State, 1/10 at USC Upstate
Well, the weather is great in Ft. Myers and the Eagles’ blue/green color scheme is easy on the eyes. And their women‘s basketball team might be headed for an unbeaten regular season, even though it‘s unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament since the school is in its final season of reclassification. As for the men? Suffice it to say that opponents are averaging more than 79 points per game and that the offense can’t shoot from the field (40 percent), the three-point line (30.4 percent) or the foul line (63.8). No matter how much the 1-2 punch of Anthony Banks and Reed Baker do, it’s not enough.
Playing the Percentages
Every week, we‘ll take a look at an intriguing trend around the conference and decide fluke or trend. This week, it’s the recent scoring surge of ETSU junior Adam Sollazzo, who’s averaged 15 points over the last four games after averaging 3.9 PPG in the first 11 games and losing his starting job. We’re going to say fluke, because Sollazzo has never come close to scoring like this for any stretch of time until now. But if Sollazzo keeps averaging double figures, the Bucs become a lot more dangerous in this league.
A Look Ahead
Now things start to get interesting in the league, as the top teams run into each other in a series of matchups that could crystalize the pecking order going forward.
- Jacksonville takes its yearly Nashville road trip, playing Lipscomb and then Belmont. A sweep seems unlikely, but a split would be a very solid showing for the Dolphins.
- After they play the Jacksonville schools, Belmont and Lipscomb get together for the first of their meetings at Belmont.
- Meanwhile, ETSU has a chance to take on more wins against very beatable foes when it hosts Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson, then visits North Florida.
- Stetson tries to keep one of the weirdest trends in the conference going when it travels to ETSU. It’s won the last two games in Johnson City and some feel it’s because coach Derek Waugh, who played at Furman when the Bucs enjoyed their glory days of a generation ago, gets his team more ready for this game than for others.