1. North Florida
3. Florida Gulf Coast
6. SC Upstate
8. Kennesaw State
POY: Dallas Moore, Junior, North Florida
Coach of the Year: Jim Engles, NJIT
Newcomer of the Year: Damon Lynn, NJIT (if that counts – I’ll go with Rayjon Tucker of FGCU if not)
G – Dallas Moore, Junior, North Florida
G – Damon Lynn, Junior, NJIT
G – Kori Babineaux, Senior, Jacksonville
F – Beau Beech, Senior, Senior, North Florida
F – Josh Williams, Junior, Lipscomb
G – Yonel Brown, Senior, Kennesaw State
G – Winfield Willis, Senior, NJIT
G/F – Julian DeBose, Senior, Florida Gulf Coast
F – Chris Davenport, Junior, North Florida
F – Tim Coleman, Junior, NJIT
G – Divine Myles, Sophomore, Stetson
G – Ky Howard, Senior, NJIT
F – Nigel Pruitt, Senior, Kennesaw State
F – Marc-Eddy Norelia, R-Junior, Florida Gulf Coast
C – Michael Buchanan, Junior, SC Upstate
1. North Florida
C – Demarcus Daniels, 6‘7, Senior
PF – Chris Davenport, 6‘8, Junior
SF – Beau Beech, 6‘8, Senior
SG – Trent Mackey, 6‘3, Senior
PG – Dallas Moore, 6‘1, Junior
Reserves: Romelo Banks, 6’11, Jr.; Nick Malonga, 6‘4, R-So.; Aaron Bodager, 6‘5, R-Jr.; Karlos Odum, 6‘6, R-Fr.; CJ Fisher, 6‘2, Fr.
Fun damn squad right here. Osprey Nation had a surprising first run to the NCAA Tournament last year, and they return nearly all of that squad. The offense has a chance to be extremely good, only losing slashing extraordinaire Jalen Nesbitt (#8 FT Rate in the country), but can replace him with maybe the best standstill shooter in the conference in Trent Mackey. Player of the year candidate Dallas Moore will have the ball in his hands a ton (even more than last year), but with gunners and finishers all around him, he’ll have plenty of options.
Discussion of North Florida’s offense has to start with the shooting – Mackey and big wing/possible tanning salon tycoon Beau Beech both hit more than 70 threes at over 40%, and the attention they draw really opens up the paint. Moore can hit a few threes himself coming off of ball screens, and with Demarcus Daniels or Chris Davenport rolling hard to the rim (in a conference mostly bereft of rim protectors), UNF will be a matchup nightmare on the offensive end. Nesbitt’s many free points from the stripe will be missed, but freshman CJ Fisher could prove to be a similar threat. He’s tough and fast and can absolutely fill it up. Nick Malonga is another candidate to attack aggressively from the wing.
I’d like to think 6’11 Romelo Banks could be a difference-maker, but the 6‘7. 195-lb. Daniels was a better rebounder on both ends and a better shot-blocker. Banks also managed just a 1.9% assist rate, 41% shooting from the field, and 52% from the line. He’s unfortunately no more than another body despite his size. Newcomers Karlos Odum (redshirt freshman) and D’Andre Bernard (Canadian true freshman) offer more upside up front behind the presumed starters.
Coach Matthew Driscoll favors a strong man-to-man defense that doesn’t force too many turnovers, and losing Nesbitt’s team leading 3.0% steal rate will hamper that even more. The defensive rebounding should be better this year, but the defensive upside isn’t great here without elite rim protection or harassing perimeter pests. The true freshman Fisher is again a candidate to help here, though, as he is strong and quick enough to bug opposing ball-handlers.
UNF has an EXTREMELY challenging non-conf schedule, with major tests against Illinois, Louisville, Saint Louis, LSU, Dayton, Arkansas, VCU, and local rival Edward Waters College (just kidding). That gauntlet will get them ready to face the A-Sun, and if they somehow manage to go 4-3 in those big games, an undefeated run through conference could give them a shocking outside chance at an at-large bid. Who knows, they won at Purdue last year!
C – Terrence Smith, 6‘6, R-Junior
PF – Tim Coleman, 6‘5, Junior
SF – Ky Howard, 6‘4, Senior
SG – Winfield Willis, 6‘0, Senior
PG – Damon Lynn, 5’11, Junior
Reserves: Vlad Shustov, 6‘9, So.; Rob Ukawuba, 6‘3, Jr.; Osa Isevbuwa, 6‘3, Jr.; Emmanuel Tselentakis, 6‘5, Sr.; Chris Jenkins, 6‘4, So.; Mohamed Bendary, 6‘9, Fr.
Welcome to a conference! The last remaining D1 independent replaces Northern Kentucky in the Atlantic Sun this year. Because of course, a team from New Jersey fits in perfectly with a conference made up of teams from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina – I’m sure it’s just A-Sun capitalizing on that huge revenue opportunity with the New Jersey market.
Anyways, the Highlanders are a highly interesting addition to this league, with a talented and experienced team returning from a 21-12 campaign that included wins at Michigan and against Yale. The only starter lost, post man Daquan Holiday, will be replaced by redshirt junior Terrence Smith, a starter in 2013-14 who missed last year with an injury. With a supremely talented perimeter group and experience across the roster, NJIT will contend for the conference title right off the bat.
The biggest issue for the team, without a doubt, will be rebounding. They were pretty poor at it last year, and Holiday was the team’s best rebounder. Smith doesn’t bring the same glass presence, which could mean more time for big sophomore Vlad Shustov. He didn’t post great rates as a freshman, but his size should make a difference. Like many freshman big men, though, he fouled way too much.
The best way for NJIT to overcome their rebounding woes will be through perimeter strength. Point guard Damon Lynn is a conference POY candidate right off the bat, a quick terror on both ends of the floor who can shoot it (110 threes made), steal it (1.8 per game), and pass it (3.7 per game). He needs to shoot it better from inside the arc, though (36%), to really maximize his ability.
He’ll play with mulitple talented wing options, including Winfield Willis (a shooter), Ky Howard (actually the team’s best passer, and adept at getting to the line – shout out to fellow Weave man Ky for the name twin), Tim Coleman (another shooter and driver), and Hofstra transfer Charles Jenkins. There’s tons of depth, too, with Rob Ukawuba, Emmanuel Tselentakis, and Osa Izevbuwa. Expect to see a ton of four- and even five-guard lineups where the tam can spread the floor and create a mulititude of mismatches. Rebounding becomes an issue again, and the team will need to do that by committee.
Adapting to a new conference will be a challenge, and NJIT will have by far the toughest travel of anyone in the league. But they are talented enough to overcome both of those things, as the victory in Ann Arbor showed last year. Coach Jim Engles has his first real shot at the NCAA tournament this year with the conference affiliation and strong team, and I’m excited to see how they respond.
3. Florida Gulf Coast
C – Demetrius Morant, 6‘9, R-Junior
PF – Marc-Eddy Norelia, 6‘8, R-Junior
SF – Julian DeBose, 6‘4, R-Senior
SG – Christian Terrell, 6‘4, Sophomore
PG – Zach Johnson, 6‘2, R-Freshman
Reserves: Rayjon Tucker, 6‘5, Fr.; Reggie Reid, 5’11, Fr.; Antravious Simmons, 6‘9, R-So.; Kevin Mickle, 6‘7, R-So.; Jonathan Milligan, 6‘2, Jr.; Brian Greene, 6‘3, R-Jr.
DUNK CITY IN THE HOUSE! Unfortunately, Brett Comer – the king of the alley- portion of their high-flying alley-oops – has graduated, as has another star from that team, Bernard Thompson. FGCU now must find a wholly different identity, with no one around from that team that clowned my pathetic Georgetown title pick that year (I am terrible at picking the bracket!).
The star of the team will undoubtedly be wing Julian DeBose, the leading returning scorer and an all-conference candidate. With the departures of Comer, Thompson, and Jamail Jones, a ton of possessions open up, and I would expect DeBose to take a large leap into that void (something like 16-17ppg wouldn’t surprise me). He can shoot a bit from the wing (blah % last year though) and is a good athlete in the A-Sun. Up front, Marc-Eddy Norelia actually used the highest percentage possessions of the returnees, and started about half the games – fellow returner Demetris Morant started the other half. They should form a nice complementary duo up front, with Norelia being more of an inside scorer and solid rebounder and Morant being the best offensive rebounder and shot-blocker in the conference (by rate). Both are breakout candidates with an uptick into the 25-30mpg range; Morant may struggle to get to that minute range due to fouling issues, though.
FGCU has some major X-factors. Freshman wing Rayjon Tucker is probably the best recruit in the conference, an outrageous athlete who will be dynamic attacking the basket and hawking the ball on defense. He’s a raw basketball player (started his sophomore year in high school), but he’s so talented and improved so rapidly that he could be a force in the A-Sun as soon as this year. The other prime X-factor is VCU transfer Antravious Simmons, a large athlete who is eligible in December and could give the team a second terror in the paint to alternate with Morant (and that would help solve the problem of Morant’s fouling). Tucker could start right away (although I’ll guess he is a dynamic bench threat for at least a little while) and Simmons could be a force down low once eligible.
The backcourt is the biggest question mark. Sophomore Christian Terrell was very inefficient as a frosh, as was redshirt sophomore Brian Greene Jr. (49.9 O-rating!!), leaving a lot of room for Tucker, redshirt freshman Zach Johnson (a highly-rated recruit before missing last year with an injnury), and junior college transfer Jonathan Milligan. Johnson and Milligan should handle the point guard duties, though both prefer to score more than distribute. Freshman Reggie Reid is another wildcard in the backcourt; he filled the stat sheet in high school, and him finding minutes would not be a surprise either.
With the roster turnover, FGCU has a fairly high variance; if the new backcourt pieces don’t work, they could fall from grace a bit. The talent here is still very solid, though, and the Eagles certainly could out-perform this rank and make it an All-Florida battle for the top spot. I’m splitting the difference and keeping them near the top, but not actually winning the title.
C – Brett Wishon, 6‘9, Junior
PF – Talbott Denny, 6‘6, Senior
SF – Josh Williams, 6‘5 Junior
SG – JC Hampton, 6‘0, Junior
PG – Nathan Moran, 5‘9, Sophomore
Reserves: David Wishon, 7‘2, R-Sr.; Aaron Korn, 6‘4, So.; Asa Duvall, 6‘2, So.; George Brammeier, 6’10, So.; Eli Pepper, 6‘8, Fr.; Garrison Matthews, 6‘5, Fr.
Despite returning some talented players, Lipscomb’s ability to challenge the top 3 in the A-Sun will most likely be limited by a bad defense. This will start to sound like a broken record in this conference preview (the bottom 5 all finished with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 300 or worse), but that’s what it boils down to – the Bisons need to learn how to guard, or 4th is going to be their ceiling this year.
Lipscomb gave up far too many easy baskets and free points. They couldn’t block any shots, put opponents on the foul line constantly, and forced few turnovers despite playing at a helter skelter pace. To their credit, they did hit the defensive glass hard, and they’ll need to continue to do that while beefing up the other areas. One possible answer is massive 7‘2 grad transfer David Wishon, older brother of returning starter Brett. David didn’t play much in his previous stop at College of Charleston, but perhaps a step down in competition (and a desperate need for rim protection) will allow him to be a bit more successful. Additional minutes for George Brammeier might also help deter opponents inside, but he fouled at the unconscionable rate of 9.9 per 40 minutes last year.
Normally when a team fouls as much as Lipscomb while playing at such a high pace, it’s the product of an aggressive pressure scheme that creates turnovers. Coach Casey Alexander’s team did not do that, though, posting the 305th-best steal rate in the country. With that combination of factors, the Bison might be better served to play a bit slower and not have their horrible transition defense exposed
There are bright spots though, I swear! They are led by an all-conference forward in Josh Williams, an efficient scorer both inside and out. The starting lineup should include two solid distributors, sophomore Nathan Moran and junior JC Hampton – Hampton was 4th in the conference in assist rate at 28.6%, and Moran posted a respectable 26.1% rate across all games. With an added year of seasoning, they should play off each other well. They combined to go 66/230 from deep though (mostly weighed down by Hampton) – that’s bad!! Talbott Denny and Aaron Korn are ace rebounders on the offensive and defensive end, respectively, and the aforementioned Brett Wishon is a solid stretch four (6‘9, 35% from 3). The pieces for a good offense are there, though another athletic slasher would be helpful.
Despite a strong returning group, the defense remains enough of a red flag to predict a large jump up the standings. The top 3 are too good (though NJIT is the most vulnerable, being new to the conference) to feel comfortable bumping Lipscomb up.
C – Antwon Clayton, 6‘6, Sophomore
PF – JR Holder, 6‘7, Junior
SF – Marcel White, 6‘6, Junior
SG – Marcellous Bell, 5’11, Senior
PG – Kori Babineaux, 6‘4, Senior
Reserves: Andris Misters, 6‘5, Sr.; Josh Adeyeye, 6‘5, Sr.; Omar El Manasterly, 6‘6, Jr.; Shea Jones, 6‘1, Jr.; Demontrez Austin, 6‘7, Jr.; Cody Helgeland, 6‘8, Jr.
After a brutal 2014-15 season, Jacksonville enters this year with some more optimism, returning everyone of signficance from last year’s squad. Coach Tony Jasick’s team was a sieve defensively last year, playing a mix of man and zone but having neither work out. Opponents shot a preposterous 54.5% effective field goal percentage against them last year, good for 342nd in the country, and the wishy-washy zone/man blend allowed 38% of opponent field goal attempts to be threes. Fixing the defense is the key to getting better, but the Phins offense also needs some work.
It’s likely no team in the conference will rely on one player more than the Dolphins will rely on big point guard Kori Babineaux, who used 31% of the team’s possessions in conference, good for second in the A-Sun (the leader, Lipscomb’s Malcolm Smith, graduated). Babineaux was second in the conference in assist rate (37.5% in conference games!), third in steal percentage, and 8th in % of minutes played. He can’t shoot from the outside (1-17 from deep on the year), but he was great off the dribble and uses his big frame to beat up smaller defenders.
With a similar cast around him, expect Babineaux to continue to chuck – but Jasick would be wise to spread some possessions to more efficient players – wings Andris Misters and Marcel White posted the best O-ratings on the team. Not coincedentally, they were also the team’s best three point shooters, with Misters hitting 39% and White hitting 45%. If Babineaux can find those guys on the wing a little more (as well as tiny Marcellous Bell, 37%), Jacksonville has a chance to actually improve on offense. The team has no inside threats to speak of, though.
Now, as for that defense. Antwon Clayton was the only guy on the team to average more than 0.4 blocks per game (and he only got 1.1 per), meaning the team has no real inside presence on defense, either. Similarly – they couldn’t keep opponents off the glass. JuCo transfers Demontrez Austin and Cody Helgeland will get chances to fill the void inside, as will redshirt junior Darius Dawkins, another former JuCo guy who missed last year with an injury. If any of those three can give the Dolphins a legitimate inside presence, they’ll improve on both ends of the floor.
Given the strength of Babineaux and the wings, Jacksonville can’t be counted out in the conference race, but the defensive holes will be tough to overcome. Middle of the pack is a safe bet.
6. USC Upstate
C – Michael Buchanan, 6’11, Junior
PF – Jacob Schulte, 6‘6, Sophomore
SF – Josh Cuthbertson, 6‘5, Junior
SG – Deion Holmes, 6‘3, Freshman
PG – Mike Cunningham, 6‘1, R-Freshman
Reserves: Marvin Smith, 6‘6, Sr.; Jure Span, 6‘4, Fr.; Tanner Castora, 6‘2, Fr.; Damien Goodwin, 6‘7, Jr.; Tristan Thomas, 6‘3, Jr.; Ramel Thompkins, 6‘6, So.
This is gonna be a big year of transition for USC Upstate, as they lose all of one of the best mid-major backcourts in the country with the departures of Player of the Year Ty Greene, point guard Fred Miller, and wing Mario Blessing. Josh Cuthbertson and Tristan Thomas are the only returnees who played any real minutes in the backcourt, and Thomas barely saw the court. There is some strength in the frontcourt, though, and the newcomers in the backcourt should help keep the Spartans out of the A-Sun basement.
A starting duo of Michael Buchanan and Jacob Schulte offers some solid potential, particularly defensively – both were in the top-10 in the conerence in block rate, and Buchanan was a monster on the boards on both ends of the floor (#2 in the conference in offensive and defensive rebounding rate). Both were good finishers (Schulte shot 63%), though not adept at creating their own shots. Senior Marvin Smith and junior Damien Goodwin provide solid offensive rebounding and finishing as well, giving the team strong depth up front.
The shot creation, then, will need to come from the newcomers. Redshirt freshman Mike Cunningham and true freshmen Deion Holmes, Jure Span, and Tanner Castora will play tons of minutes. Holmes scored an outrageous 39ppg in high school (albeit in a tiny town), but he should start immediately with his ability to fill it up. Cunningham and Span are the two most likely point guards, with the Slovenian Span having more basketball experience – Cunningham missed his senior year with an eligiblity issue. Both will get their chances, though. Cuthbertson, Castora, and Thomas will fill out the rest of the wing minutes, and all 3 should hopefully provide some outside shooting and space.
With the loss of the entire backcourt, expect Upstate to re-calibrate its offense a little bit – they were 44th in the country by taking 40% of their shots from 3-point land; without the 481 attempts the 3 senior guards took, moving the ball inside more should give the team more free points (325th in free throw rate).
Upstate contended for the conference last year, losing in the tournament final to North Florida, but this is likely a big rebuilding year with the inexperience in the backcourt.
C – Kevin Ndahiro, 6‘9, R-Freshman
PF – Brian Pegg, 6‘7, Junior
G – Grant Lozoya, 6‘2, Sophomore
G – Divine Myles, 5’11, Sophomore
PG – Angel Rivera, 5‘8, Sophomore
Reserves: Luke Doyle, 6‘5, R-So.; Cameron Harvey, 6‘3, Jr.; BJ Glasford, 6‘4, Jr.; Derrick Newton, 6‘7, Fr.; Drew Romich, 6‘9, Fr.
One of the 10-15 least experienced teams in the country last year (343rd per kenpom numbers), Stetson should get better if only because the plethora of freshmen who played prominent roles will be a year older. Slightly reminiscent of USC-Upstate above (only a year ahead on the timeline), Stetson was forced to give almost all of its backcourt minutes to freshmen, with Grant Lozoya, Divine Miles, and Angel Rivera all playing more than 23mpg. The Hatters (!!) lose leading scorer and lone senior Kentwan Smith, meaning the frontcourt will also be young this year.
All things considered, Lozoya, Miles, and Rivera had solid first campaigns, with the 5‘8 Rivera being especially effective – he led the team in assist rate (3rd in the conference, 77th nationally) while shooting 40% from deep. The lack of size between the three presents a problem defensively, with oppoents being able to outmuscle and post up against the young guards, but not many guards in the A-Sun can effectively post up. They do at least have Cameron Harvey, BJ Glasford, and Nicholls State transfer Luke Doyle to provide some bigger depth off the bench, but their offensive games are not terribly potent. Redshirt freshman center Kevin Ndahiro should be a strong shot-blocking option to help cover up the size deficiencies as well.
The key for Stetson this year is to continue to develop the talented youngsters while not developing a culture of losing. The defense was unsurprisingly terrible last year with so many small freshman getting so many minutes, but an offseason of strength training and a lot of roster consistency should give that a chance to improve. Hopefully, the guards can force a few more turnovers while playing at a swift tempo as well. Progression, not contending, is the primary goal, and coach Corey Williams’s team should be capable of at least that.
While they should be better, Stetson will still be incredibly young and seems a year or two away from contending.
8. Kennesaw St.
C – Bernard Morena, 6‘8, Junior
PF – Jordan Jones, 6‘8, Junior
SF – Nigel Pruitt, 6‘7, Senior
SG – Nick Masterson, 6‘5, Sophomore
PG – Yonel Brown, 5‘9, Senior
Reserves: Aubrey Williams, 6‘7, R-Sr.; Kendrick Ray, 6‘1, R-Jr.; Josh Burnett, 6‘5, Fr.; Kyle Clarke, 6‘5, Fr.; Tracy Hector, 6‘4, Fr.
A big welcome back to Reverend Al Skinner after a 6-year hiatus from D1 head coaching. The 63-year old returns after a couple years collecting termination checks from BC and assisting at Bryant University for two years. This is not the most glamorous return, though, as Kennesaw returns very little from a team that was already a disaster.
Of course, when you’re terrible, roster turnover isn’t always the worst thing in the world. And thankfully, the two main returning parts, seniors Nigel Pruitt and Yonel Brown, were the team’s most efficient offensive players last year, with Brown in particular being a key to any improvement that might occur this year. He played 93% of the team’s minutes last year, splitting duties between the point and the 2, but he’ll likely have to play point almost exclusively this year. He is a good driver and a lights-out free throw shooter (90% on 136 attempts), and both he and Pruitt are decent three-point shooters (both 36% on over 150 attempts). Playing Pruitt at stretch-4 is an option, but his dismal rebounding numbers for a 6‘7 guy make that a bit of a non-starter defensively.
Speaking of defensively, the team’s best shot-blocker (Willy Kouassi) transferred, leaving junior Bernard Morena as the likely defensive anchor. He was solid on the glass and at the rim last year, but too many turnovers and poor free throw shooting limit his effectiveness. Skinner’s teams play mostly man, and the Owls have good length on the wing between Pruitt and sophomore Nick Masterson. If Skinner instills some better discipline, this team could progress on defense.
Among the newcomers, 6‘1 senior Kendrick Ray (Allen Ray’s little bro!) should be the most effective. He was a bit player at Quinnipiac on his last stop, but a new system and coach could be a boon for him. He’ll allow Brown to play off the ball and focus on scoring at times, too.
The big outlook on Kennesaw comes down to how you feel about Skinner. I kinda think he’s not a good coach, but his experience should help a downtrodden program like this one. I don’t think he climbs out of the cellar until he can start to bring in more talent, but seeing some progress is a reasonable expectation.