By Scott Haynes, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: In recent years, the Atlantic Sun Conference has been dominated by Belmont, which has won four of the last five regular-season championships and has made five NCAA Tournament appearances since 2006. But with the Bruins having bolted to the Ohio Valley Conference this year, the A-Sun is now up for grabs.
The conference sent two other teams to postseason play last year in Mercer and USC Upstate, both earning bids to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament with Mercer winning five games en route to the tournament title. Both squads earned a lot of positive experience and return great a solid core of players, and with Belmont gone, Mercer's impressive run in the CIT makes it the preseason favorite.
A pair of Sunshine State programs, Florida Gulf Coast and North Florida, have shown great improvement over the past few seasons and appear to be on the doorstep of being championship-caliber squads. FGSU had a great run in the A- Sun Conference Tournament, beating both Mercer and USC Upstate, but it needs to prove it can play at a high level for an entire season. East Tennessee State has been battle-tested in the conference for many years, but it will have difficulty replacing three players who averaged double figures in scoring last season.
Lipscomb, Stetson and Jacksonville were all under whelming squads last year, and although each has enough individual talent to qualify for the conference tournament at season's end, it will be difficult to expect lengthy postseason runs from any of them.
Newcomer Northern Kentucky has graduated from the ranks of Division II to join the A-Sun this season, although it won't be eligible for D-I postseason competition until 2016. It has shown promise in the lower ranks of competition, but it is difficult to tell how it will react to its new status.
Expected to bring up the rear once again in Kennesaw State, which went winless in conference play last season.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Mercer
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Mercer, 2. USC Upstate, 3. Florida Gulf Coast, 4. North Florida, 5. East Tennessee State, 6. Lipscomb, 7. Stetson, 8. Jacksonville, 9. Northern Kentucky, 10. Kennesaw State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
MERCER: In Bob Hoffman's fourth year as head coach of the Bears, he led the team to its best season ever. Although they lost to Florida Gulf Coast in the semifinals of the A-Sun Tournament, they still got an invite to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, where they defeated Tennessee State, Georgia State, Old Dominion, Fairfield and Utah State in winning the championship and finishing the season at 27-11. Mercer has plenty of room for optimism following that spectacular run as it retains the majority of its top players, with four returning starters and 11 returnees overall. Langston Hall was the leading scoring last season with 11.4 ppg and should be one of the best all- around players in the conference (4.2 apg, 3.4 rpg). Down low, junior forward Jakob Gollon (10.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.3 apg) and 6-10 center Daniel Coursey (8.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg) provide stability that most teams in the conference simply can not rely on. Bud Thomas (8.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is one of the team's top defenders with more than a steal per game and Travis Smith (8.8 ppg) knocked down three- pointers at nearly a 43 percent clip last season.
USC UPSTATE: The Spartans are coming off the best season in program history. Under head coach Eddie Payne, who is coming into his 11th season and recently received a contract extension through 2015-16, USC Upstate finished second in the A-Sun with a 13-5 conference record and ended with a 21-13 mark overall. The campaign resulted in the school's first-ever Division I postseason berth, earning a bid to the 2012 CollegeInsider.com Tournament and winning its opening-round matchup against Kent State. The Spartans are primed for another strong run this season as they are one of only two teams in the conference to return all five starters, including A-Sun Player of the Year and AP All- America honorable mention selection Torrey Craig. The 6-6 junior scored a league-high 16.4 ppg and was second in rebounding with 7.7 per contest, and he will no doubt once again be the team's catalyst. Ty Greene (11.4 ppg) drained 40 percent of his three-pointers a season ago, and Ricardo Glenn (9.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Jodd Maxey (7.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Adrien Rogers (8.2 ppg) also return to pivotal roles. One of four incoming freshmen, 6-11 center Michael Buchanan hopes to make a impact in the paint.
FLORIDA GULF COAST: Despite finishing with a sub-.500 record last season (15-17, 8-10 A-Sun), FGCU got hot in the conference tournament, defeating USC Upstate (71-61) and Mercer (62-58) before falling in the championship game to Belmont. Head coach Andy Enfield was able to change the culture of the program in just his first season, taking over for a 10-win team in 2010-11 and leading it to just one game short of the NCAA Tournament in 2011-12. The Eagles were one of the conference's youngest squads last year, and the invaluable experience it gained will hopefully pay off this season as seven of their top eight scorers return. Sherwood Brown (12.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Bernard Thompson (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) were the team's most reliable performers a season ago, with Brown being named to the All-Conference Second Team. Brett Comer (9.1 ppg) joined Thompson on the All-Freshman Team and lead the league in assists with 5.6 per game. Christophe Varidel (9.2 ppg), Filip Cvjeticanin (8.4 ppg), Chase Fieler (6.8 ppg, 1.2 bpg), and Eddie Murray (6.5 ppg) are also back after being major contributors last season. FGSU came together at the right time last year and have a lot of positive things going for it heading into this new season.
NORTH FLORIDA: Since winning just three games during the 2007-08 season, the Ospreys have shown improvement in every subsequent campaign, culminating in a respectable 16-16 record last season (10-8 A-Sun), qualifying for the conference tournament but losing to ETSU in the first round. Entering his fourth season as head coach, Matthew Driscoll hopes that the upward trend continues, and it appears he has some solid pieces in place to do so. Parker Smith is one of four returning starters and is coming off a season where he ranked fifth in the conference in scoring at 14.5 ppg. The 6-3 guard was also lethal from the foul line, draining a league-best 83.8 percent of his shots from the stripe. Smith's running mate in the backcourt will once again be Will Wilson, and although he averaged just 2.0 ppg last season, he was sure-handed with the ball, dishing out 3.1 apg with a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. The frontcourt appears to be in decent shape as well with the return of starters Jerron Granberry (10.9 ppg) and Andy Diaz (9.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 23 blks), as well as sixth man Travis Wallace (10.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg).
EAST TENNESSEE STATE: Head coach Murry Bartow has been a mainstay at ETSU as he enters his 10th season and the team has enjoyed a lot of success during his tenure. The Buccaneers have registered a winning record in all but one of Bartow's seasons, including a pair of NCAA Tournament berths in 2009 and 2010. They are coming off a 17-13 campaign in 2011-12 (10-8 in conference), but will need to replace departing seniors and top performers Adam Sollazzo (14.9 ppg, 4.4 apg), Isiah Brown (12.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Tommy Hubbard (10.1 ppg). The team will be guard heavy yet again with seniors Marcus Dubose (10.8 ppg) and Sheldon Cooley (9.6 ppg) the top returning players. ETSU lacks ideal size, with Lukas Poderis (6-8) and John Walton (6-7) both looking to improve with an increased role. In addition to eight returning players, it also has three freshman and a pair of juco transfers joining the fold. ETSU only has a handful of players who have significant experience, and it appears that is has lost too much in the offseason to overcome and be a serious contender for the A-Sun crown this time around.
LIPSCOMB: Head coach Scott Sanderson has been one of the most successful coaches in the A-Sun over the past decade, leading the Bisons to a 210-183 record since 1999 along with regular season conference championships in 2006 and 2010. Last season was a down year for Lipscomb however, as it finished just 13-18 and 8-10 in conference, including a first-round exit in the conference tournament to Mercer (61-53). The loss of Jordan Burgason will certainly sting -- his 16.4 ppg would have ranked tied for first in the league had he played enough games to qualify. The Bisons return six letter-winners from a season ago, but only Malcolm Smith experienced significant playing time. Smith averaged 9.9 ppg as a freshman and made a habit of getting to the foul line (111-of-175), and it appears he will be the go-to guy in 2012-13. Oscar Garcia, a 6-8 transfer from Otero Junior College, and freshman Stephen Hurt (6-10) figure to see plenty of minutes in the trenches for a team that had just one player average more than five rebounds per game a season ago.
STETSON: The Hatters had a rough go of it in Casey Alexander's first season as head coach, going 9-20 (6-12 A-Sun) while missing out on the conference tournament. Still, the record was an improvement compared to the last few seasons, as the nine overall wins was the most the team has had since the 2008-09 campaign. The progress for the program is expected to continue this season as it returns nine players to the floor, including all five starters. Senior center Alex Pegg was one of the league's top performers last season, draining 51.6 percent of his field goal attempts for 14.9 ppg, while also ripping down a team-high 5.5 rpg. Stetson can also rely on a pair of junior guards in Chris Perez (13.5 ppg) and Aaron Graham (12.7 ppg). Graham is one of the most dangerous outside shooters in the A-Sun, knocking down 68 three- pointers a season ago. Joel Naburgs (9.2 ppg, 2.6 apg) and Willie Green (7.3 ppg, 1.3 bpg) will also receive plenty of playing time, as will 7-0 freshman Kyle Sikora.
JACKSONVILLE: Although the Dolphins are just a few years removed from back- to-back 20-win seasons (2009-11), they managed to collect just eight wins in 30 tries last year, which included a 13-game losing streak from late November to mid-January. Cliff Warren's bunch will suffer without last season's top scorer Aloys Cabell (12.3 ppg), but there's still some returning talent for this Jacksonville squad. Senior forward Glenn Powell is coming off a solid campaign (10.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and junior Keith McDougald (11.2 ppg) brings an outside presence having connected on more than a three-pointer per game during his career. The offense runs through senior point guard Russell Powell (8.3 ppg), who was among the conference leaders in assists last year with nearly four per game. It also hopes to get some production out of freshmen forwards Kordario Fleming (6-6) and Tyler Alderman (6-9). An improvement on last season's record won't be too difficult, but expecting much more from this squad is unrealistic.
NORTHERN KENTUCKY: After winning 20 or more games in five of the past six years as a Division II program, Northern Kentucky will begin its multi-year transition to Division I by joining the A-Sun. The Norse will play a full conference schedule, but they will not be eligible for D-I postseason competition until their transition period is complete in 2016. Dave Bezold has been head coach of the squad for eight years, leading it to a 161-79 record. The transition to a higher level of competition will certainly be a challenge but it will be aided by the return of three of the team's top five scorers from a year ago. Senior guard Eshaunte Jones tallied 10.7 ppg while draining more than two three-pointers per contest, and Ethan Faulker (10.0 ppg) and Chad Jackson (9.4 ppg) both proved to be quality distributors with more than 230 assists between them. NKU lacks ideal size, with its tallest players being a pair of 6-8 twins in freshmen Jacob and Justin Rossi.
KENNESAW STATE: The first season as head coach of the Owls is one that Lewis Preston would love to forget. His team went a dreadful 3-28, which included a winless run in the A-Sun (0-18). The silver lining for Kennesaw State is that it returns one of the conference's best players in senior Markeith Cummings. The 6-6 guard ranked second in the league in scoring last year with 15.4 ppg and also contributed 5.3 rpg and 2.1 apg. Delbert Love (12.4 ppg, 3.0 apg) joins Cummings in the backcourt and Aaron Anderson (8.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg) is a steady presence in the paint, but no other players who made significant contributions last season are back, although based on the terrible record, that might not be such a bad thing. The frontcourt figures to receive a huge boost with the addition of 6-10 center Willy Kouassi, an Auburn transfer, and his size alone will be an immediate help to a team in desperate need of a post presence. The Owls will also hope that at least one of their six incoming freshmen can become a reliable performer.