- Ky McKeon
Atlantic Sun Preview
- Florida Gulf Coast
- North Florida
- Kennesaw State
- USC Upstate
All Conference Awards
POY: Dallas Moore, North Florida
Coach of the Year: Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Goodwin, Florida Gulf Coast
1. Florida Gulf Coast
Key Returners: Marc-Eddy Norelia, Christian Terrell, Zach Johnson, Demetris Morant
Key Losses: Julian DeBose
Key Newcomers: Brandon Goodwin, Raysean Scott, Christian Carlyle
Postseason Projection: 14-16 Seed (Auto-Bid)
Ever since the 2013 NCAA Tourney, the once unknown program of Florida Gulf Coast has been somewhat of a household name. The success earned then-Coach Andy Enfield a sweet gig at USC and laid the foundation for a future of Atlantic Sun competitiveness. Joe Dooley picked up right where Enfield’s squad left off, leading the Eagles to three straight 20+ win seasons and an NCAA Tourney berth last year. Dooley is earning a reputation for being one of the better coaches in the country and should use that notoriety to land a sweet gig of his own (Mizzou???). The success should come as no surprise after studying under Roy Williams and later Bill Self for 10 years at Kansas – the dude has pedigree. This year’s Eagle squad could be the most talented FGCU has ever had, right up there with the magical 2013 Sweet Sixteen team of yesteryear.
Stylistically, the Eagles are all about eschewing the three-ball, pounding the ball inside, and getting easy buckets at the rim. The Eagles ranked 4th in the country last year in percentage of points scored via two-pointers and 7th at % of shots attempted at the rim. It’s a good strategy considering FGCU has one of the most dominant big men at the mid-major level at their disposal in Marc-Eddy Norelia. The 6‘8“ senior is a top five A-Sun rebounder, ranked 16th in block percentage last year, and drew fouls at the 3rd highest rate in the conference. Norelia’s offensive game isn’t limited to the block – the big man attempted 40% of his shots away from the basket last season, converting on a respectable 46% of them (he shot 61% at the rim). Norelia is not the Eagles‘ only frontcourt weapon though. FGCU returns two major frontcourt contributors this season with Antravious Simmons and Demetris Morant. The trio make up the best froncourt in the conference and all but ensure the Eagles to be a top three rebounding and interior defensive team once again this season. Both Simmons and Morant are excellent boarders, but their roles differ slightly. Simmons is the better offensive presence; he consistently looks for his shot inside via post-up or offensive put-back and used the second most possessions on the team while on the floor last season. Morant is not quite as polished offensively, but he is arguably the best shot-blocker in the Atlantic Sun. Majority of teams are going to have fits trying to score inside on this Eagles team.
As if the frontcourt wasn’t enough, FGCU also boasts one of the deepest and most talented backcourts in the conference. Zach Johnson and Christian Terrell return to their starting roles, while UCF transfer Brandon Goodwin looks poised to make a huge splash. Goodwin was one of the better point guards in the American as a sophomore in 2014-15, racking up the 9th best assist rate in the conference. His presence in the FGCU lineup allows Johnson to shift over to more of a shooting guard role, but will also give the Eagles the enviable luxury of featuring a dual point guard system. Aside from facilitating, Goodwin offers FGCU elite penetration ability, though his outside jumper is a little suspect (not really a concern for Dooley). Johnson is actually a good three-point shooter (39.1% as a frosh) and should see a lot more opportunities to stroke the long-ball with Goodwin handling majority of the ball handling responsibilities. Terrell is the team’s most voluminous three-point shooter and is also an underrated defender – he ranked in the top 20 of both steal percentage and block percentage as a freshman last year.
The backcourt bench is made up of some solid pieces with returning reserve point guard Reggie Reid, swingman Rayjon Tucker, and freshmen Raysean Scott and Christian Carlyle. Reid faciliated the offense well as a rookie last season and should make a reliable backup for Goodwin and Johnson. Tucker is one of the better shooters on the roster but didn’t attempt nearly the volume he should have as a freshman. Tucker shot 69.5% near the rim and 35.9% from downtown last season, averaging 6.2ppg in only 18mpg. Rookies Scott and Carlyle should both carve out roles of their own this year. Scott, an ESPN 3-star, was a highly sought after recruit coming out of high school; he offers athleticism and defense from the small forward position. Carlyle is a versatile guard capable of playing multiple positions on offense and knocking down the trey ball.
With so much talent returning and incoming, the Eagles are an easy pick to take the A-Sun crown. They’ll execute the same interior-focused offense while walling off the paint on defense, baiting opponents to take unwanted contested threes. This could be a big year for FGCU as they look to make it two straight trips to the Dance.
2. North Florida
Key Returners: Dallas Moore, Chris Davenport
Key Losses: Beau Beech, Demarcus Daniels, Trent Mackey
Key Newcomers: Garrett Sams, Al-Wajid Aminu, Aaron Horne
Postseason Projection: NIT/CBI/CIT
The Birds of Trey are back to defend their regular season Atlantic Sun title, but will have to do so without two of their most prominent members. Beau Beech and Trent Mackey both attempted over 215 threes apiece last season and converted at over a 42% clip. That’s a ton of production to replace. Luckily for Coach Driscoll, he returns the best player in the conference, a lights-out shooter ripe for a larger role, and a potential All-Conference big man. The Ospreys may have lost some firepower, but they’re still stocked with weapons.
Point guard Dallas Moore will look to defend his A-Sun Player of the Year crown this season. Moore is simply fantastic; he posted the bets assist rate in the conference last season while owning the 8th best turnover rate and 7th highest usage. Moore posted a shooting slash of .574/.381/.730 while pouring in nearly 20ppg on the 36th best offense in the country. The UNF offense had three primary elements last season: let the ball fly from deep from all five positions (6th highest 3PA% rate in the country), get out and core in transition, and give the ball to Dallas Moore. Countless of the Osprey’s half court sets initiated with Moore coming off a ball-screen from which he could drive all the way to the hole or kick out to his sweet-shooting teammates. With him returning, UNF is a legitimate contender to take the conference crown.
Moore’s comrades in the backcourt will be a couple of redshirt juniors in Aaron Bodager and Nick Malonga. Bodager ranked #1 in the country in o-rating last season (though he only used 11.7% of UNF’s possessions while on the floor) thanks to his absurd three-point shooting percentage (53/106; 50%). Bodager will be due for a major increase in minutes with Beech and Mackey gone. He’ll be given the green light to shoot from anywhere and will likely attempt over 200 threes this season. Malonga is a serviceable guard who offers shooting and slashing ability. Karlos Odum and Garrett Sams should also play a role in Driscoll’s backcourt. Sams, a 6’6” freshman, in particular should enjoy a comfortable role as an off-the-bench shooter. Word is he just lights it up from deep, which is perfect for the Ospreys’ style of play. His defense isn’t great, but hey North Florida is already pretty bad at defense. JUCO transfer Aaron Horne could make an impact as well.
On the topic of defense – North Florida was one of the worst defensive teams in the country last season. They did a great job at running opponents off the three-point line, but couldn’t stop anybody at the rim. The Ospreys were a bottom-50 team in allowing shots at the rim last year. This strikes me as odd considering UNF had the A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year in Demarcus Daniels and Chris Davenport, no defensive slouch himself, manning the paint. Daniels is gone this year, but Davenport returns, as does medical redshirt Romelo Banks. Davenport was the second best defensive rebounder and shot blocker in the A-Sun last season and was an important piece of the Ospreys offensive attack. The 6’8” power forward is able to score from just about everywhere on the floor, making him a tough matchup for most A-Sun bigs. Banks’ return could be huge for a UNF team that got destroyed on the boards last season. One newcomer to watch up front is Al-Wajid Aminu, the little brother of Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu is an athletic combo-forward in the mold of his older brother. While he’s not as talented nor as rangy as older bro, Aminu’s athleticism and defensive potential will be very valuable to this UNF squad.
North Florida loses a bit too much to be considered the A-Sun favorite, especially with the immensely talented squad FGCU returns. But Dallas Moore will keep the Ospreys competitive and set them up for a comfortable top three finish. UNF will be a fun offense to watch once again this year; whether they can fix their defensive woes will be the key to their success.
Key Returners: Damon Lynn, Tim Coleman, Rob Ukawuba
Key Losses: Ky Howard, Winfield Willis, Terrence Smith
Key Newcomers: Abdul Lewis, Taj Price, Shyquan Gibbs, Anthony Tarke, Ron Alston
Postseason Projection: NIT/CBI/CIT
NJIT welcomes a new Head Coach this season in former assistant Brian Kennedy after Jim Engles departed for the open spot at Columbia, the team that ended the Highlanders’ season last year in the CIT Championship. Kennedy’s experience under Engles (and in general) should make for a smooth transition and the Highlanders should play in a similar manner as previous years. NJIT will play their typical four-out perimeter oriented system and jack a lot of threes. On D they’ll utilize a combination of man and pressure zone in order to compensate for their relative lack of size.
Damon Lynn returns to lead the Highlanders as a high-scoring point guard. Lynn shot 340 threes last year and has attempted over 900 for his career – I really can’t even put in perspective how many shots that is; it’s literally insane. Last year was Lynn’s worst in terms of downtown shooting percentage (32.6%) but he shot significantly better from inside the arc and at the foul line than in years prior. The guard played the 4th most minutes in the country last season, and should continue to be one of the best players in the conference this year as he looks to take over the top spot on the NJIT all-time scoring list.
Joining Lynn in the backcourt will be fellow seniors Tim Coleman and Rob Ukawuba. Coleman does everything on the floor for NJIT; he’s the team’s best returning rebounder and one of the better defenders in the league with his ability to rack up steals and blocks in bunches. On offense, Coleman is able to light it up from deep (41.6%), drive by bigger defenders, or punish smaller defenders in the post. Ukawuba is a nice complementary player on offense, able to score inside and out. Junior guard Chris Jenkins likely steps into the starting lineup this season with the three key Highlander departures. Jenkins functions as a knockdown spot-up shooter from beyond the arc (40.1%). Freshman Shyquan Gibbs should also be a factor in the Highlander backcourt; he’s a long, skinny combo guard capable of knocking down shots.
NJIT has been one of the smaller teams in the country over the last few years, but they’ll be better equipped down low this season with the arrival of South Alabama transfer Abdul Lewis. Lewis is a 6’10’’ potential double-double machine who ranked in the top ten of the Sun Belt in rebounding two seasons ago. Freshmen Anthony Tarke, Taj Price, and Ron Alston could all contribute up front this season behind Lewis and returning sophomore Mohamed Bendary. Tarke in particular should see quality minutes immediately’ he’s a good-sized wing with 3 & D potential.
The Highlanders will continue to shoot threes at one of the highest rates in the nation behind the chucking of Damon Lynn, but Lewis adds a new wrinkle to their offense. His presence in the post will really help balance out the NJIT attack and will allow the Highlanders to better compete with the bigger teams in the league. Kennedy should have no issues transitioning to the Head Coach position this season and should have NJIT competing for an A-Sun championship.
Key Returners: Nathan Moran, Josh Williams, Garrison Matthews, Eli Pepper, George Brammeier
Key Losses: JC Hampton
Key Newcomers: Michael Buckland, Kenny Bunton, Rob Marberry, Kenny Cooper
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT/Vegas 16/None
2015-16 was a rough year for the Bisons under Head Coach Casey Alexander. Lipscomb limped to a 12-21 (7-7) record and saw their best player go down to injury. Though their young team fought valiantly, vast inexperience proved to be too much to overcome. This season, Alexander looks to flip the script on the Bisons’ fortunes. Lipscomb returns nearly everyone from last year’s squad and welcomes back their injured star player.
The Bisons played at the fastest pace in the A-Sun last season (17th in the country) thanks to a four-out, one-in offense that focused on shooting threes early and often and pushing the ball in transition. Alexander has the perfect personnel to continue with his preferred style – a deep group of sharp shooting, sure-handed guards and versatile forwards. Josh Williams, a former 1st Team All-Conference member who went down with an ACL tear against Princeton last December, will lead Lipscomb’s attack. Williams is as talented as any guard in the A-Sun, able to score from downtown (38.3% in 2014-15) or inside the arc (55.2%). If he comes back fully healthy, Lipscomb has a dark horse shot at an auto bid.
The silver lining in Williams’s injury was the emergence of Garrison Matthews. The sophomore guard was forced into big minutes as a rookie last season and thrived in conference play. Matthews led the Bisons in usage as a freshman and functions as one of the best shooters on the team. Nathan Moran and Cam Miller, two former walk-ons, also stepped up big time for the Bisons last season. Moran was an excellent point guard in the Lipscomb motion offense, dishing his way to the 3rd best assist rate in the conference. The 5’10” point guard also ranked 15th in the conference in three-point percentage and 4th in free-throw percentage. Miller started 20 games last year but likely falls back to a reserve role with the return of Williams. Miller prefers to attack the basket on offense but really isn’t very utilized – good glue guy.
The frontcourt features one of the best freshmen in the conference a season ago in Eli Pepper, a 6’9’’ forward that ranked 3rd in the conference in DR% (17th nationally), 6th in OR%, and 3rd in Blk% last year. Pepper is a great fit in Alexander’s offensive system because of his mobility and ability to hit the occasional three. He excels at getting easy buckets off basket cuts from the perimeter and crashing the glass. George Brammeier plays the big man in the middle role in the 4-out offense. Brammeier is a great offensive rebounder and steady post presence. On the other end, he forms a nice rim protection duo with Pepper.
Senior Brett Wishon and Western Kentucky transfer Rob Marberry will also play roles in the frontcourt this season. Wishon is a dangerous stretch four option in the three-happy offense. Marberry is an undersized center with Brammeier potential.
Expect a major uptick in offensive production this season for the Bisons with increased experience and the return of Josh Williams. They’ll shoot a ton of threes and will likely play at one of the fastest tempos in the nation again. Defense has never been a strong point for any of Alexander’s Lipscomb teams. They play a lot of 2-3 zone and give up a lot of threes. I’d expect a slight improvement on this end simply due to the increased experience, but it’ll still be an issue. If Lipscomb can button up their D a bit, they could make an A-Sun run.
Key Returners: Derick Newton, Brian Pegg, Divine Myles, Luke Doyle, Angel Rivera, Grant Lozoya
Key Losses: Cameron Harvey
Key Newcomers: Larry Dennis, Clay Verk
Postseason Projection: None
Stetson made postseason headlines when they went on an improbable run to the A-Sun conference tournament championship. A finals win wouldn’t have meant a postseason berth for the Hatters (they were ineligible due to APR violations) but it was a confidence booster sorely needed by a team that finished the year 4-10 in one of the weakest conferences in the country. This year, the Hatters return nearly all of their important players from one of the youngest and smallest squads in the nation last season.
The Hatters should be one of the better offensive teams in the conference this season as they return their top five scorers from last year’s group. Derick Newton is the stud muffin of the bunch; he’s a crafty 6’7” wing with an unbelievable shooting touch and strong slashing ability. Last year Newton shot 49.1% from downtown, the 4th best rate in the country, and drew fouls at the 4th best rate in the A-Sun. He plays the power forward spot for a super small Stetson squad, and does well scoring from deep, by penetration, and on the block. If his freshman season is any indication, Newton should be one of the best players in the conference this year. His running mate will be Brian Pegg, an undersized, but strong, forward. Pegg was a 2nd Team All-Conference selection last season thanks to his rebounding ability – he ranked #3 in defensive rebounding percentage and #1 in offensive rebounding percentage in the A-Sun last season. Pegg is the only good rebounder on Stetson (Newton is so-so), a team that finished #302 in both DR% and OR% a year ago. Freshman Clay Verk and JUCO transfer Larry Dennis should both provide depth at the forward spots, something the Hatters did not have last year.
Stetson is deep in the backcourt as Coach Williams has five viable guard options at his disposal. The Hatters feature a dual-PG offense focused on getting out in transition (2nd fastest pace in the A-Sun last year). Angel Rivera and Divine Myles are both capable ball handlers that distribute well and don’t turn the ball over (Stetson ranked 83rd nationally in TO%). Rivera is more of a true-point guard who prefers to facilitate instead of shoot while Myles is a versatile scoring guard. Myles is capable of throwing up a triple-double on any given night with his scoring, rebounding, and passing ability; he ranked second on the team in three-point percentage (39.3%), 2nd in assists per game, and 3rd in rebounds. The guard is also excluded from the “Stetson is an awful defensive basketball team” narrative – Myles was named preseason A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year this October (fan-voted).
Luke Doyle, Grant Lozoya, and B.J. Glasford make up the other three relevant Hatter guards. Doyle will start at the three spot; he’s a small-usage spot-up shooter with excellent range. Lozoya needs to stop shooting three-pointers all together – he went 23/102 (22.5%) last season coming off the pine. He is, however, perhaps the best perimeter defender the Hatters have outside of Myles. Glasford was hurt all year last season but returns to fill a defensive role in the backcourt.
It’s easy to see the pieces returning for Stetson and overhype their squad this season. Offensively, this team is stacked from an A-Sun perspective and they have a top five player in the conference in Newton. However, this was a bottom twenty defensive team in the country last year and that type of futility doesn’t disappear quickly. The best argument for improvement on that end is the increased experience the Hatters have this year; they were the 15th youngest team in the country last season. If Dennis or Verk can step up in a frontcourt role and provide some girth on the glass, Stetson could make for a sexy flyer pick as the A-Sun postseason champ.
Key Returners: Marcel White, Darius Dawkins, J.R. Holder, Darien Fernandez, Andris Misters, Antwon Clayton
Key Losses: Kori Babineaux, Josh Adeyeye
Key Newcomers: Devin Harris, Tyrone Sam
Postseason Projection: None
Tony Jasick has done a nice job in his first two seasons bringing the Jacksonville Dolphins back to conference relevance. Last year was the first season since 2010-2011 the Dolphins reached a .500 win percentage and this year’s squad holds the potential to build on that success. Kori Babineaux’s departure is significant, but it could be a bit of addition by subtraction. Despite being the team’s leading scorer, Babineaux was an inefficient (97.0 o-rating) volume scorer that often took his team out of the games (granted he did keep them in a lot games as well). Babineaux took the 38th highest percentage of his team’s shots in the country but turned in a shooting split of .468/.286/.612. I like to think the Patrick Ewing theory comes into play this season.
Jacksonville’s strength this season will be their immense depth. Coach Jasick can literally go 10 guys deep this year with strong returners and talented newcomers. Unfortunately, none of this depth applies to the post area. Their forwards are all solid basketball players, but they’re all predominantly wing players who function as small-ball fours. The bevy of forwards at Jasick’s disposal this year include seniors Marcel White, Darius Dawkins, J.R. Holder, and Omar El Manasterly, junior Antwon Clayton, and JUCO transfer Cody Helgeland.
White was the team’s second-leading scorer last season and likely becomes option #1 on offense this year. White is money from deep (39.9%) and also proved he can put the ball on the floor last season; he was also the Dolphins’ leading rebounder a season ago despite so-so rebounding percentage numbers. Dawkins may miss a good part of the beginning of the season due to injury, but he’s a major offensive weapon from outside when healthy. Last year, the redshirt senior was one of the best three-point shooters in the country, hitting 47.8% of his 113 attempts. Holder functions more as a slasher on offense; he thrives on driving to the rack and picking up fouls – he ranked #1 in the A-Sun in free-throw rate last season. El Manasterly and Clayton are more “true posts” than the aforementioned trio. Clayton is a fantastic and versatile defender, but he’s a brick on offense. El Mansterly may be the best rebounder on the team. Helgeland sat out last season due to injury; he is a JUCO transfer capable of providing rebounding and even more outside shooting for the Dolphins’ frontcourt.
The backcourt is chock full of ball handlers and potential impact players. Darien Fernandez is the loan incumbent from last year’s squad, but Jasick also welcomes back shooting guard Andris Misters from a year on the IR. Misters was the second-leading scorer on JU’s 2014-15 team and started all but one game that season. He is a lights-out shooter from deep (38.5%). Fernandez struggled in a combo guard role last year. He turned the ball over at a fairly high rate and shot atrocious percentages, but he is an asset as a pesky on-ball defender. Fernandez and Misters will have difficulty holding off two newcomers for the backcourt starting slots. Devin Harris joins the squad this season by way of East Tennessee State. Harris is a well-built combo guard who rebounds extremely well for his position. He’ll add value as an extra ball handler and perimeter defensive stopper. Tyrone Sam could easily grab one of the two starting guard spots on opening night and never let go. Sam averaged 25.7ppg in JUCO last season (2nd in the country) and earned 2nd Team All-America honors. Like Harris, Sam can play either the point or off-guard position and should easily carve out a major role on this Dolphins squad.
On offense, Jacksonville wants to run, run, run – a good strategy considering they’ll have a significant lack of size. The Dolphins have the athletes and depth at all five positions to be an effective transition offense, and they’ll also look to launch a good amount of threes this year. Defense will be an issue, particularly in the interior. Despite their size, the Dolphins were a good defensive rebounding team last season, but couldn’t stop anybody at the rim (opponents shot 62.4% at the cup). JU tried to combat their lack of size by laying off shooters on defense and allowing opponents to shoot threes, a strategy which turned out to be unsuccessful as opponents shot 36.6% from downtown last year. The Dolphins will need to outscore opposing teams to win basketball games this year. They could finish in the middle of the pack in the A-Sun this season.
7. Kennesaw State
Key Returners: Kendrick Ray, Aubrey Williams, Nick Masterson
Key Losses: Yonel Brown, Nigel Pruitt, Bernard Morena
Key Newcomers: James Scott, Anthony Wilson, Zach Cameron, Johannes Nielsen
Postseason Projection: None
Kennesaw State has never enjoyed a winning season since joining the D1 ranks back in 2005-2006. Many casual basketball fans haven’t even heard of the medium-sized school down in Georgia. So last year’s hiring of Al Skinner probably opened up a few eyeballs around the country. Skinner, the long-time BC coach, is a well-known basketball entity and racked up several successful seasons as the coach of the Eagles. BC has yet to return to national relevance since Skinner left; KSU is looking to build a competitive A-Sun program with Skinner as their leader.
KSU loses a major piece from their 2015-16 squad with the departure of Yonel Brown. Brown led the country in minutes played averaged nearly 19ppg for the Owls. With him gone, senior guard Kendrick Ray now stands as the primary option on offense. Ray led the Owls in scoring last year while shooting a slash of .516/.370/.712 on the 5th highest usage in the conference. Ray will run some point this season but serves better off the ball where he’s free to drive and shoot from the wing. A 20-25 ppg season out of Ray would not surprise me.
The Owls run a flex offense that ends in a lot of two-point jumpers (25th highest % of 2P jumpers attempted in the country last year), usually by the hands of Ray. While Ray is excellent, he’ll need at least some help shouldering the scoring load. His backcourt mates will be a combination of sophomore Kyle Clarke, junior Nick Masterson, and a couple of freshmen in Anthony Wilson and James Scott. Clarke is an athletic wing that does most his damage inside the arc; he struggled with TO’s and shooting last season but has growth potential as a second-year player. Masterson is a good candidate to become one of the Owls’ most prolific three-point shooting threats. Only four Owls shot over 50 threes last season; Brown shot 211. Masterson will need to step up in that niche role in order to add spacing to the KSU offense. Scott and Wilson both have potential to make immediate impacts on the rotation. Scott is a super athletic wing who can shoot and score from just about everywhere. Wilson contributes in every facet of the game; he’s a versatile wing who can guard multiple positions and play multiple spots on offense.
KSU will be thin up front this season, a similar predicament they faced last year that led to them getting brutalized on the boards. Aubrey Williams and Jordan Jones return to the starting lineup, while freshmen Zach Cameron and Johannes Nielsen should provide depth. Williams was easily KSU’s best rebounder last season, ranking 2nd and 13th in the A-Sun in OR% and DR%, respectively. He’s also perhaps the best Owl defender and is capable of guarding the 3, 4, and 5 spot. On offense, Williams specializes in attacking the bucket and drawing fouls. He led the conference in fouls drawn per 40 minutes last year and owned the 5th best FG% and 15th best FT%. Jones is thinner than Williams, but represents KSU’s best rim protector. He’s a liability on offense though. Cameron is one of the very few true post players on the roster. He’s very long big man and has good footwork on the block. Nielsen, a Denmark product, has potential to help the Owls on both sides of the ball with his athleticism and mobility.
Skinner’s squad loses too much with Brown to expect a significant improvement in the A-Sun this season. They’re also a candidate for “team you’d probably rather not sit down and watch” with their vanilla flex offense and tendency to get burned in transition. I expect Skinner to keep improving this program with his ability to recruit freshman and transfers, but this season will be challenging. Ray is one of the best players in the conference, but probably isn’t enough to vault the Owls into the top-half of the A-Sun.
8. USC Upstate
Key Returners: Michael Buchanan, Deion Holmes, Mike Cunningham, Josh Cuthbertson
Key Losses: Marvin Smith
Key Newcomers: Thomas Booker, Tim Hart
Postseason Projection: None
USC Upstate, one of the oddest college names in the country, struggled winning games last year due to their inexperience. The Spartans ranked dead last in the A-Sun in both offensive and defensive efficiency that stemmed from a lack of discipline and poor decisions on both sides of the floor. This season, Coach Eddie Payne brings back four starters and over 90% of his scoring from last year. While USC Upstate still may finish near the bottom of the conference this year, they will almost certainly be a much-improved team.
The Spartan offense revolves around Michael Buchanan, a 7-foot monster in the middle of the paint. Buchanan exhibits great footwork inside and is near impossible for most A-Sun big men to defend. Much of Upstate’s scoring relies on Buchanan post-ups and put-backs. Word is he put on 35 pounds of good weight in the offseason, making him a burly 285 pounds. Good luck stopping that kids. Buchanan is a top five rebounder in the conference and ranked 4th in block percentage; he anchors the matchup zone, which has been good for Payne overall during his tenure but was an absolute train wreck last season.
Payne tends to start three guards most of the time, so one forward, likely Josh Cuthbertson, will join Buchanan in the frontcourt. Jacob Schulte and Phillip Whittington round out the significant forward pieces. Efficiency-wise, Cuthbertson was Upstate’s best offensive option last season. The 6’5’’ senior forward contributes in a variety of areas with his well-rounded scoring, rebounding, and passing ability. Whittington is a true power forward option off the pine and really came on strong at the end of last season. His rebounding numbers, particularly on the defensive glass, were insane last season in limited minutes, and he proved he could be a reliable scorer inside. Schulte has more of a wing build, but he operates almost exclusively inside on offense. He’s a solid offensive rebounder and contributes on D with his above average shot-blocking ability.
The Spartan backcourt was made up entirely of freshman last season, which naturally led them to rank as one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country. With a year under their belts, the starting backcourt trio of Jure Span, Mike Cunningham, and Deion Holmes could really flourish in 2016-17. Span functions as the squad’s primary point guard; he ranked 10th in the A-Sun in assist rate last year but was one of the key culprits responsible for Upstate’s turnover woes. The Slovenian guard is a pass-first point, but he had a lot of success shooting from deep last season, where he scorched the net at a 46.8% clip (12th best in the nation). Cunningham acts as a secondary ball-handler and forms a pseudo dual-PG look with Span. He proved he could put points up in bunches last year, but was very inefficient in doing so (volume shooter). Holmes led the Spartans in scoring last season and etched his name on the A-Sun All-Freshman Team. Like Cunningham, Holmes takes a ton of shots to score a lot of points – his 36.7% two-point percentage was horrific last year, but the 35% three-point clip is inspiring. All three guards will need to tighten up their handle on the rock this season and reign in their wild shot selection.
Upstate has the talent to make some waves in the A-Sun this season. They’ll still probably be fairly inconsistent but they could throw some knockout punches to bigger conference foes. This will be a better version of last year’s squad that has potential to move into the top six with better defense and decision-making.