Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference.
A Look Back
- Belmont‘s the Best: There is no team as consistent in this league as the Bruins, who came within a Scotty Hopson layup of scoring an upset win at Tennessee Thursday night. How good is Belmont? It went 8-of-35 from the 3-point line, had a 37-10 disadvantage in free throw chances and still fought a top 20 team — a top 20 team with decisive neutral court wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh — down to the wire. Between ripping his team after the game, Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl couldn’t stop expressing his admiration for the Bruins’ half court offense. If Belmont wins this league, it could win a first round game in the NCAA Tournament with the right draw.
- Jacksonville‘s Not Far Behind: And what about those Dolphins, going into Florida on December 20 and walking away with an overtime win against a team which two days earlier held Kansas State to 44 points? Right now, Cliff Warren is the favorite for A-Sun Coach of the Year. All he’s done is take a team which lost its top scorers to graduation (Ben Smith and Lehmon Colbert) and usually has no one taller than 6’5 in its lineup and make it a much better defensive outfit. While it helps to have a do-it-all type like Ayron Hardy in your lineup, JU keeps getting meaningful contributions from the likes of Keith McDougald, Glenn Powell and Travis Cohn. Mark down January 10 on your calendar; that’s when the Dolphins visit Belmont.
- Player of the Week: Scott Saunders, Belmont. Coming off the bench — which should tell you just how deep this team is — Saunders averaged 12.7 PPG and 7.3 RPG in wins over Kennesaw State, Troy and Alabama State. His 19-point, 10-rebound performance December 16 against Kennesaw State represented the first double-double of his career. A year after his arrival, the Rice transfer is having the impact many thought he would. Just missing the gold medal is Jacksonville’s Keith McDougald, a freshman who averaged 15 PPG in road games against Saint Louis and Florida. McDougald canned four free throws in OT to clinch the Dolphins’ 71-68 upset of the No. 20 Gators.
1. Belmont (9-3, 2-0)
Next Week: 12/30 vs. Miami (OH)
Want to know two more reasons why the Bruins win? Rebounding and depth. They are outrebounding foes by nearly four per game, including an impressive 47-40 wiping of the boards at Tennessee, and play 10 players at least 10 minutes per game. In that respect, they play the game exactly like a BCS school, which is why they are this league’s favorite until further notice. One troubling trend, though, is that sophomore Ian Clark’s scoring average is down to 11.9 ppg. He had just six points and fouled out late in the loss at Tennessee. Belmont becomes a bit more vulnerable if Clark keeps slumping.
2. Jacksonville (7-3, 2-0)
Next Week: 12/30 vs. Bethune-Cookman
The Dolphins‘ win at Florida made them the first A-Sun team to beat a top 25 foe since Mercer walloped USC and O.J. Mayo in the 2007 season opener. They don’t win with a lot of style points, given their low shooting percentages across the board, but JU is better equipped to win games in March this year thanks to its emphasis on defense. It is in some ways harder to guard because of the absence of a go-to player like it had last year in Ben Smith. If Belmont has some slippage, this looks like the team best suited to jump into the breach.
3. Lipscomb (7-3, 2-0)
Next week: 12/30 at Memphis
Predictably, Jordan Burgason has found his lost 3-point shooting touch, canning 16-of-32 in the team‘s last three games and averaging 20 points in that span. Center Adnan Hodzic continued his run to 2,000 career points, climbing to 1,670 for his career after a rare off-game netted him just 12 at Alabama. That was about the only thing worth mentioning from a 71-51 loss which was highly disappointing to coach Scott Sanderson, who said his team competed for five minutes of the second half. Losing at a BCS school is expected, but losing by 20 against a .500 BCS school when you expect to contend for a league title just doesn’t sit well with Wimp’s son. Nor should it.
4. Campbell (7-3, 1-0)
Next Week: 12/30 at East Tennessee State
No team in the league won in more dramatic fashion last week than the Camels, who trailed UNC Wilmington almost all night until Junard Hartley unloaded a game-winning 3-pointer with 1.4 seconds left for a 57-56 decision Dec. 22. Campbell is winning with defense, limiting its last four opponents to less than 40 percent marksmanship from the field. We’ll start finding more out about the Camels next Thursday night when they visit two-time conference tourney champ East Tennessee State.
5. East Tennessee State: (5-7, 0-1)
Next Week: 12/30 vs. Campbell
The Buccaneers‘ inconsistent point guard play is a nightly concern, but so are their slow starts. Until a 79-51 win on Christmas Eve against Appalachian State, they fell behind by double figures before the second media timeout in three straight games — all losses. It appears more and more likely that senior forward Tommy Hubbard is headed for a redshirt year, shifting more of the load to Mike Smith, Micah Williams, Justin Tubbs and Isiah Brown. So far, none of those four has consistently been able to be the No. 1 offensive option for more than a game or two at a time. Someone has to at some point or a once-promising season could end in a sea of mediocrity.
6. North Florida: (4-7, 1-1)
Next Week: 12/29 at Maryland
Now we get to the A-Sun‘s second division, where there presently seems to be little difference from sixth place to the cellar. On the premise that the Ospreys have played the toughest schedule in the league, we’ll go with them at No. 6. It’s not a good sign that they continue to have trouble scoring the ball. It’s an even worse sign that they have failed to earn more trips to the foul line than their opponents in 11 straight games. For a team which struggles to score consistently, it needs to find more ways to draw fouls and get easy points.
7. Mercer (3-8, 0-2)
Next week: 12/30 vs. Charlotte
You had to feel bad for Brian Mills, who fumbled a potential game-winning layup against Georgia Dec. 23 through his hands and out of bounds. Talk about the Grinch rappelling down your chimney at rocket speed. It was a lost opportunity for a team which continues to struggle to score points. And it was a rotten ending to a great game for Mills, who had 21 points and 12 boards. The Bears are still getting almost nothing out of underclassmen, a bad sign long-term.
8. Florida Gulf Coast (3-7, 0-2)
Next week: 12/27 vs. IUPUI
Reed Baker is going out with a bang, firing in a game-high 25 points in a Dec. 21 win over North Carolina Central. The senior guard is averaging nearly 18 points per game, although his usage rate suggests he needs to score more to justify his low shooting percentage. Other than sophomore forward Anthony Banks, who might be the league’s top offensive rebounder, there’s still little to like about this team across the board. Ole Miss transfer Kevin Cantinol hasn’t contributed much, suggesting there’s considerable rust to chip off his game.
9. USC Upstate: (2-9, 1-1)
Next week: 12/30 at Virginia Tech
Unlike Mercer, which recruited a bunch of freshmen and isn‘t getting much production from them, the Spartans can boast of freshmen who lead the team in scoring (Torrey Craig), rebounding (Craig) and blocked shots (Babatunde Olomuyiwa). In fact, Olomuyiwa’s 35 blocked shots are more than six teams in the conference. So while Upstate is probably headed for another 20-loss season, it at least is bringing along young players who appear capable of leading this program to brighter days in 2-3 years.
10. Stetson: (3-9, 1-1)
Next week: No games scheduled
One could say the Hatters crapped out in Las Vegas, where they lost on consecutive days to Rice, Akron and Arkansas-Little Rock to stretch their losing streak to five games. Defense was an issue in the final two games as the Zips and Trojans combined to hit a total of 25 3-pointers. The one consistent scorer individually continues to be sophomore Ridge Graham, who’s eighth in the league at 15 points per game and third in rebounding at 7.3. With the Nashville schools coming to town after the New Year, followed by a road trip to Upstate and ETSU, Stetson needs to improve first-shot defense soon or their five-game losing streak might not end for a while.
11. Kennesaw State: (2-9, 0-2)
Next Week: Dec. 28 at Wyoming
What‘s happened here? Since an 80-63 blowout of Georgia Tech Nov. 15, the Owls have lost nine in a row and are getting blown out more often than worn tires on a pothole-strewn expressway. Not even a lineup shakeup in a Dec. 22 loss at Fordham could change this team‘s slumping ways. This team shouldn’t be losing nine in a row, but will lose more than that unless it starts hitting more shots and making more of a commitment to playing tough defense like it did in last year’s A-Sun tourney.
Playing the Percentages
Every week, we’ll look at an intriguing individual or team stat and determine fluke or trend. This week, we eyeball Belmont‘s first half dominance. Until it trailed 35-23 at halftime of a December 23 game at Tennessee, the Bruins had outscored their first 11 opponents by a combined 156 points, or an average of 41-27. We’re going to say fluke, even though we think this is the conference’s top team. With conference opponents — the guys who see you twice a year — on the docket for most of the season’s remainder, Belmont might not display this type of dominance immediately.
A Look Ahead
After opening Santa‘s presents, A-Sun teams will mostly practice and get ready for the bulk of conference play in the last week of 2010, although there are some intriguing games.
- Campbell tries to improve to 2-0 in conference play when it makes its final trip to Johnson City for a date with two-time A-Sun tourney champ East Tennessee State.
- Belmont plays Miami (Ohio) in what should be a fascinating battle for tempo control. The Bruins love to play fast but Miami coach Charlie Coles gets almost everyone to play at a waltz pace.
- North Florida goes back to the road (and the bank) when it fleshes out a brutal non-conference schedule with a Maryland-Kansas State swing.
- Lipscomb takes its last swing at a significant non-conference road win when it makes a 200-mile bus trip to Memphis. The more experienced Bisons will have had nine days to stew over a rotten performance in a loss at Alabama.