What to watch for in the upcoming 2017-18 Atlantic Sun season:
1. Does anyone have a chance against FGCU this year? The Eagles are not only the very clear favorite in the ASun, but one of the best mid-majors in the country.
2. Who fills the void for Dallas Moore and Damon Lynn at North Florida and NJIT, respectively? Those point guards are the two best players in the history of their programs. Interesting seasons ahead for both teams, especially as NJIT finally moves into their new gym.
3. The sudden departure of Eddie Payne leaves USC Upstate in total rebuild mode. Payne was the league’s longest tenured coach (he had been in Spartanburg since 2002), and guided the Spartans into D1 basketball.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. FGCU– The Eagles are once again the clear favorite to win the league and should be an upset darling in the NCAA Tournament. Simply put, Joe Dooley’s squad is loaded in the backcourt and frontcourt. Dooley, a longtime Bill Self assistant, has been running the KU high-low motion offense at FGCU quite efficiently since he took over for Andy Enfield. Last year’s Eagles took shots at the rim at the 13th highest rate in the country while converting at the 31st best percentage (both stats courtesy of hoop-math.com). That’s downright Selfian. The Eagles lose Demetrius Morant and Marc-Eddy Norelia, but return practically everyone else, and Dooley added a stud freshman point guard and a pair of Power Five transfers to the frontcourt. The backcourt returns reigning ASun POY Brandon Goodwin and his running mate Zach Johnson. Both are comfortable on the ball, but Johnson really started to grow into the point role later in the year, which freed up Goodwin quite a bit as the season wore on. Johnson is a lock down defender on the perimeter, and there aren’t many players in the country I want with the ball in their hands more than Goodwin when you need a bucket in the final seconds. Christian Terrell, a 6-foot-5 do it all attacking wing, also returns to the backcourt. The one weakness from the Goodwin, Johnson, Terrell trio… perimeter shooting. All three shot just 33 percent from deep last year – and Terrell and Johnson were sub-25 percent in ASun play – so Dooley is banking on former USF/UTRGV wing Dinero Mercurius to knock down some jumpers as an outlet in the high-low motion offense. Dooley also added 5-foot-3 Darnell Rogers (son of diminutive George Washington great Shawnta Rogers) to the backcourt stable. Rogers is probably the best freshman in the league, and brings electricity to the point guard position. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him running the point full time come March. While the frontcourt lost Meech Morant and Norelia, Dooley has a healthy Ricky Doyle (Michigan transfer) and Brady Ernst (Iowa State) eligible, and VCU transfer Michael Gilmore (son of Artis) will be eligible in December. That’s a massive influx of talent in the frontcourt, although Gilmore’s athleticism and floor stretching ability make him more of a wing. The newcomers will join veterans Antravious Simmons, an efficient post scorer but foul-happy defender, and a healthy RaySean Scott. Replacing the rim protection provided by Morant and the overall defense from Rayjon Tucker is the primary concern with this unit. That said, the Eagles are still clearly the class of the league, and winning a game or more in the NCAA Tournament is certainly within the realm of possibility. Dooley’s team will once again be tested in nonconference play with a veritable who’s who of mid-major teams in the nonconference.
2. Lipscomb– If there’s an ASun team who can upset FGCU come conference tournament time, it’s the Bisons. Lipscomb plays the Rick Byrd drag screen transition offense beautifully, and if they get hot from the perimeter, watch out. Casey Alexander was of course a longtime Byrd assistant, so playing the four-out motion, drag screen transition offense was a given. The Bisons played at the sixth-fastest pace nationally, were 10th in 3-point attempt rate and seventh in assist rate all while being the ASun’s most efficient offense. Lost in all that was the fact that last season was the best defensive team Alexander has had in his four years in Nashville (particularly when extending pressure with freshman Kenny Cooper on the floor), and Lipscomb had the league’s second-best defense overall. Alexander’s offense is led by do-it-all wing Garrison Mathews, whose strength at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds makes it virtually impossible to keep him out of the lane and off the free throw line. Alexander would surely love to see him improve his jump shot, however. Undersized and underrated point guard Nate Moran also returns. What Moran lacks in speed and athleticism, he makes up for with his knowledge of angles and outstanding jump shooting. Iowa/Chattanooga transfer Andrew Fleming should make an immediate impact on the wing for the Bisons as well. The "one" in Alexander’s four-out, one-in motion is hyper efficient Rob Marberry, and if you’re going to play that role in this offense, you HAVE to be hyper efficient. Marberry also proved to be an outstanding passer out of the paint, a skill I didn’t necessarily know he possessed after seeing him in limited minutes at Western Kentucky. Eli Pepper also returns to the frontcourt as one of the country’s most underrated glass eaters, and a hopefully healthy George Brammeier provides solid depth behind Marberry. Samford transfer Matt Rose should be a perfect fit in Alexander’s offense as a 6-foot-7 sharp shooter. The Bisons can be impossible to guard when they’re clicking, but they ultimately just don’t have the same talent level as FGCU.
3. North Florida– Matthew Driscoll was just tasked with replacing the best player in the history of UNF basketball this offseason. No big deal, right? Dallas Moore was UNF hoops for the last few seasons, but Ole Miss transfer JT Escobar is also a born scorer and will slide into Moore’s role immediately. He’ll be joined by sharp shooting 6-foot-6 Garrett Sams, who fortunately for Driscoll returned to Jacksonville after stating he was transferring home to UT Martin. Sams proved to be not just a lethal shooter but an effective penetrator off the bounce as well in his freshman season. In the frontcourt, Al-Wajid Aminu is wired in the vein of former UNF 3/4s Demarcus Daniels and Chris Davenport, the type of player that Driscoll has really relied to overwhelm opposing 3/4s with their athleticism and versatility. If Aminu developed a jump shot in the offseason, watch out. Driscoll will also rely heavily on JUCO Noah Horchler in the frontcourt, another athletic specimen. Beyond that, there’s zero depth there. If Escobar can fill in somewhat admirably for Moore and the Aminu/Hochler duo excels thanks to their athleticism, UNF should be hosting at least a game in the ASun tournament. However, the interior defense, which was solid last year, could be a major achilles heel with the loss of Davenport and Romelo Banks.
4. NJIT– Brian Kennedy and the Highlanders find themselves in a similar position as UNF in that they have to replace the best player in program history. Damon Lynn wasn’t just the best player in NJIT history. He WAS NJIT basketball. Kennedy will be relying on a combo of Shyquan Gibbs at the point and JUCO volume scorer Diandre Wilson off the ball to at least partially make up for Lynn’s overall production in the backcourt. The most exciting player on NJIT’s roster has to be wing Anthony Tarke, who was phenomenal across the board after Lynn went down. Tarke is poised for a massive sophomore season. Not only does Kennedy have to replace the school’s all-time leading scorer, but he has to replace Tim Coleman, the program’s all-time leading rebounder, as well. However, Abdul Lewis should be agruably the league’s best frontcourt player in his second season as a Highlander after transferring from South Alabama. Lewis was dominant offensively for a stretch in January and early February and is one of the league’s best on the glass as well. His defense, however, could use some improvement. Veteran Chris Jenkins returns to the frontcourt as well, but the player to watch is 6-foot-8 freshman San Antonio Brinson. Brinson’s athleticism and versatility pops on his tape, and he can play 2-4 in this league, which would make him a matchup nightmare. The Highlanders will get a home court boost with their long awaited new gym ready for this season, but the defense needs to improve drastically and Kennedy needs to find a way to make up for Lynn’s production. That said, the pieces are there for a top half finish.
5. Jacksonville– The Dolphins’ season was completely derailed by injury last year, and the injury bug has already reared its ugly head for Tony Jasick’s squad, albeit in a far less dramatic way. Several key Dolphins (including Cody Helgeland and Devin Harris, both of whom battled injuries last year) had to sit out with minor injuries during the team’s trip to Canada this offseason. It’s not a major deal, but when a team has as many new faces as this one, the trip was intended to be a gelling moment for the Dolphins, which obviously didn’t quite work out. That said, the emergence of Navy transfer Jace Hogan, who averaged over 20 points per game on the trip, was a major development for Jasick. With Hogan joining Antwon Clayton and the 6-foot-8 stretch Helgeland, the JU wing corps is among the best in the league. Devin Harris also returns from injury this year, and should help ease Tanner Rubio’s ball handling duties. Rubio is much more at ease when he can work as a spot up shooter. He hit an astounding 51 percent from 3-point range in ASun play last year. While Jasick has Ohio State transfer Dave Bell coming in next year, he’ll have an entirely unproven frontcourt for this season. 6-foot-10 JUCO transfer Radwan Bakkali is the guy to watch in the paint. He’s a massive presence, but totally raw. It may take a bit for Jasick to find a rotation and for all the new faces to gel, but the Dolphins could pick up where last season began before all the injuries.
6. Kennesaw State– The Owls are another team facing the loss of a do-everything guard, as Al Skinner will look to find some continuity with his flex offense in a post-Kendrick Ray world. This year’s team will revolve around Nick Masterson, arguably the best shooter in the entire country. Conventional wisdom says his absurd 53 percent 3-point mark will go down as defenses key in on him without Ray around. Kyle Clarke and Tyler Hooker will share point guard duties. Hooker is the best perimeter defender on the team, but Skinner prefers a bigger guard as his primary ball handler in his flex schemes, which is why Clarke is slotted there despite it clearly not being his natural position. (A 32 percent turnover rate last year bears that out.) 6-foot-5 sophomore wing James Scott is a born scorer, and if he can reign himself in a bit within Skinner’s offense, he and Masterson could be a lethal wing duo with his penetration ability. Freshman Tristan Jarrett is arguably the best recruit Skinner has landed in his tenure at KSU and should see immediate minutes in the backcourt, especially since this roster is short on frontcourt depth and a small lineup will be trotted out out of neccesity. Speaking of the frontcourt, Jordan Jones and his athleticism is about all Skinner has, and that’s the major issue facing KSU this year along with new faces working in Skinner’s flex. It will be interesting to see if he’s willing to adapt given his sharp shooting personnel led by Masterson. KSU hit the 3 at the second-best mark in the country last year, but attempted them at the fifth-lowest rate, which is low even for a Skinner offense.
7. Stetson– First and foremost, Corey Williams has to improve the Hatters’ defense if they’re going to make a significant jump in the ASun standings. Under Williams, the highest Stetson has finished in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, is 329th. They’ve finished dead last or second to last in league play in that regard as well, so the numbers aren’t just skewed by playing Power Five nonconference foes. Williams did add Sean Woods to his staff, the controversial former Morehead State head coach. Woods’ Morehead teams were known for their physicality and ability to generate turnovers through sheer aggression. They were also notoriously relentless on the offensive glass, and the Hatters were the league’s worst rebounding team. Perhaps Woods will bring some much needed "toughness" to the Hatters this year. Offensively, the Hatters begin and end with combo guard Divine Myles. Myles is easily the league’s most underrated player. He’s a lethal shooter with a quick first step, and he’s a lockdown defender. Myles was one of the league’s most efficient players offensively despite having the 10th-highest usage rate in league play. He runs with Comby Rivera in the backcourt in Williams’ dual point guard offense. Rivera is the pass first point guard of the two, and allows Myles to work off the ball more. BJ Glasford, Luke Doyle and Leo Goodman all bring length and streakiness to the wing, while freshman Keith Matthews should be an immediate contributor there. The late loss of Derick Newton to this unit was a pretty brutal blow. With Newton, the Hatters were possibly a top half team (although they still could be, as 3-8 in this league are essentially interchangeable). The frontcourt is still a major work in progress. Williams needs big jumps from veterans Clay Verk and Larry Dennis, and he’ll see what he can get out of the athletic duo of Ricky Gouety and Bebe Iyiola. Freshman Adam Webb is the league’s biggest player at 7-foot-2, but he’s essentially unmolded clay at this point.
8. USC Upstate– The late retirement of longtime head coach Eddie Payne (the dean of ASun coaches as well) really puts a damper on the season outlook for the Spartans. Payne was a true character and brought Upstate into D1 hoops. Hopefully his health returns and he enjoys retirement after a 40-plus year coaching career. Kyle Perry, an eight-year assistant under Payne, will take over. Perry has a lot of work to do after suddenly inheriting the reigns, as the Spartans have as much roster turnover as anyone in the league, most notably losing dominant big man Mike Buchanan. With Buchanan and Phil Whittington (who transferred out), the Spartans were dominant in the paint, but the lack of mobility forced Payne to use a lot of different zone looks, which basically ran antithetical to his coaching ethos. With the bigs gone and this year’s team being far more backcourt oriented, I expect Perry to go back to man and likely push the pace quite a bit more than Payne did. That backcourt is led by point guard Mike Cunningham, an excellent shooter and efficient scorer. Cunningham is joined by Deion Holmes, who can score in bunches but in a not so efficient manner, and Jure Span, a 6-foot-4 guard with excellent court vision and questionable (to put it mildly) defense. The key player for Perry if he’s going to switch to an up-the-line pressure man-to-man is wing Malik Moore. At an athletic 6-foot-6, he can wreak havoc with his length. With the losses of Buchanan and Whittington, the frontcourt is in total flux. Ramel Thompkins is a veteran presence, but freshmen Isaiah Anderson and Avery Diggs are going to have to contribute immediately, and I’m not sure they’re capable of that yet. Essentially, the Spartans are in rebuild mode from top to bottom this year.
FGCU wins the ASun again and possibly a first-round game or more in March, depending on the matchup of course. Lipscomb potentially gets invited to the CIT.
ASUN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Brandon Goodwin, FGCU
ALL ASUN FIRST TEAM:
Brandon Goodwin, FGCU
Garrison Mathews, Lipscomb
Rob Marberry, Lipscomb
Divine Myles, Stetson
Zach Johnson, FGCU
Mike Cunningham, USC Upstate
Wajid Aminu, North Florida
Abdul Lewis, NJIT
Anthony Tarke, NJIT
Devin Harris, Jacksonville