- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Garrison Mathews, Sr., Lipscomb
Coach of the Year: Michael Fly, Florida Gulf Coast
Newcomer of the Year: Haanif Cheatham, R Jr., Florida Gulf Coast
Freshman of the Year: Jamari Blackmon, Fr., North Alabama
Key Returners: Garrison Mathews, Rob Marberry, Kenny Cooper, Eli Pepper, Michael Buckland, Matt Rose, Nathan Moran
Key Losses: Aaron Korn
Key Newcomers: Ahsan Asadullah (Redshirt), Jake Wolfe, Jaxson Strates, Alex Jones
Outlook: Lipscomb returns nearly everyone from a 23-10 (10-4) Tournament team including all five starters and Nathan Moran, an every-game starter back in 2016-17. Head coach Casey Alexander has built the Bisons program into a mini-A-Sun power, improving his squad’s performance in each of his five years at the helm. With two 1st Team All-Conference performers coming back, including the leading candidate for A-Sun POY, the Bisons are hands down the team to beat in 2018-19.
Alexander is a Rick Byrd disciple, playing for the Belmont coaching legend and then serving as an assistant from 1995 – 2011. Like Byrd, Alexander implements an efficient “drag screen” transition offense, where a trailing big will set an unexpected ball screen for the ball handler pushing the rock up the floor. This action leads to open driving lanes and open three-point attempts, both key Lipscomb avenues of scoring. Lipscomb played at the 5th fastest tempo in the country last season and has consistently ranked in the top 30 under Alexander, but the Bisons are far from transition reliant. LU mixes in a healthy dose of post-ups, ranking 22nd in the country last season in percentage of possessions used in the post. Further, the Bisons attack the basket with fervor, leading the A-Sun in FT rate last year and ranking 2nd in offensive rebounding rate.
Defensively, Alexander’s crew is solid (ranked 3rd in the conference in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings), forcing turnovers at a high rate and rebounding at the best rate in the league (23rd best in the country). With the roster continuity, LU’s offense and defense should continue to be the class of the conference.
Garrison Mathews and Rob Marberry are the undisputed leaders of the Bisons. Mathews should be considered the frontrunner for the A-Sun Player of the Year award after leading the league in scoring last season. Mathews has ranked in the top five in the A-Sun in usage each of his first three years in college and has shown no signs of slowing down. The do-it-all guard is a career 36.2% 3P shooter, ranked 1st in the A-Sun in FT rate and FD/40 in 2017-18, and dropped a whopping 43 points on the lowly Kennesaw State Owls last year. In Mathews, the Bisons have a bona fide go-to scorer and trump card against any squad in the conference.
Marberry’s impact, though sometimes overshadowed by Mathews, cannot be understated. As post players go, Marberry is one of the most efficient scorers in the country ranking 4th among players who used over 100 possessions on post-ups in points per possession (1.139ppp) and 60th overall (95th percentile) in 2017-18, per Synergy. Marberry anchors a deadly offensive attack and provides a decent source of rebounding on both ends.
Eli Pepper will line up alongside Marberry this season in the starting lineup, while senior Matt Rose and redshirt freshman Ahsan Asadullah provide depth off the pine. Pepper is arguably the best rebounder in the A-Sun (and best in Lipscomb history), ranking 4th in DR% and 1st in OR% last season. While not an overly effective offensive player, Pepper can hold his own in the post and is capable of spacing the floor. Rose is all stretch-4, knocking down 42.9% of his three-point tries in conference play last year. Asadullah is simply enormous and will look to make an impact after sitting out last season nursing an ACL tear. True freshman Jaxson Strates, a player Alexander compares to Pepper, could also see the floor this season.
In the backcourt with Mathews, Alexander has a “first-world problem” in deciding who to start at the point. Junior Kenny Cooper started every game last season filling in for the then-injured Nathan Moran, who started every game in 2016-17. Both PGs will see ample playing time this year – perhaps both in the starting five – thanks to their excellent facilitation abilities. Cooper is the better defender, ranking 3rd in the conference in steal rate (32nd in the country) last year, while Moran is the better shooter (41% from three in 2016-17). I’d wager Alexander bringing one of them off the bench in favor of returning wing Michael Buckland, one of the most versatile players on the team and able to play multiple spots on either end of the floor. Freshmen Jake Wolfe, a two-way wing, and Alex Jones, another PG, will backup the incumbent starters alongside sophomores Greg Jones and Andrew Fleming. Alexander has been known to play a deep bench and this year he certainly has the personnel to do it.
Bottom Line: The Atlantic Sun finally looks like a league on the rise this season with three or four teams capable of making the Big Dance. Lipscomb should be considered the unanimous favorite heading into the year with the best backcourt and frontcourt in the conference.
Key Returners: Scottie James, Lovell Cabbil, Caleb Homesley, Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, Elijah Cuffee, Keegan McDowell, Myo Baxter-Bell
Key Losses: Ryan Kemrite
Key Newcomers: Keenan Gumbs (DIII), Darius McGhee, Blake Preston, Brendan Newton (Redshirt), Josh Price
Outlook: Ritchie McKay has revitalized the Liberty basketball program after an uninspiring stint under Dale Layer from 2010-2015. McKay coached the Flames from 2007–2009 and then took a job on Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia where he learned the intricacies of the Pack Line defense. Despite his overall success as a head coach, McKay hasn’t taken a team to the Big Dance since he did so with New Mexico back in 2005. With only one player departing from a 22-15 (9-9) squad that crashed the CIT semifinals, McKay may very well be back in the NCAA Tournament come March.
Liberty is known for its defense, but its offense is what often carried the Flames in 2017-18. McKay runs mostly 4-guard lineups out on the floor, setting up a 4-out 1-in look that focuses on shooting the three-ball or working the rock inside to Scottie James. His motion offense involves some UVA mover-blocker action with James screening off-ball and on-ball often, and also incorporates a lot of hand-offs, giving the motion a sort of east-west vibe.
Defensively, the Pack Line creates an impregnable shell within the three-point arc, closing off the paint to would-be drivers or cutters and shutting down the glass. The Flames ranked 2nd in the country in defensive rebounding rate last year but were susceptible (as Pack Lines often are) to the three-pointer, as teams shot a blazing 37.5% from beyond the arc. Luck certainly played a factor in this stat, and in fact the Flames ranked 300th in KenPom’s “Luck” ratings, suggesting a regression to the mean may be in store for 2018-19.
That luck stat probably had something to do with Liberty’s Jekyll & Hyde tendencies last season. In the non-con, the Flames knocked off Wake Forest and Georgia State on the road and nearly took down Houston (2-point loss) and UNC Greensboro (3OT). But, in conference play Liberty experienced a head-scratching stretch of five straight losses, one of which coming to Big South bottom feeder Longwood at home.
Personnel-wise, Liberty is as deep and balanced as any team in the Atlantic Sun (hey by the way, welcome to the A-Sun, Flames!). James took the Big South by storm last season after coming over from Bradley, notching a spot on the All-Conference 2nd Team while posting the 4th best offensive rebounding rate, best defensive rebounding rate, 5th best block rate, and 9th best 2PFG% in league play. James’s presence takes attention away from the plethora of capable outside shooters at McKay’s disposal, as defenders are forced to help off their men and dig in the post. Last season, James scored an impressive 1.211ppp on post-ups, which ranked in the 95th percentile in the country, per Synergy.
Myo Baxter-Bell serves as James’s primary backup, a former starter two years ago that saw his minutes decline when James came to town. Baxter-Bell was Liberty’s highest used player when he was on the floor last season, not such a great thing considering his struggles with finishing inside the arc. The 6’5” 255 lb. big man does provide much value in the realm of rebounding and interior defense, though. This season, he’ll be pushed by redshirt freshman Brendan Newton (a 3-star recruit in 2017) and true freshman Blake Preston for PT up front.
The Flames lose their best and most prolific three-point shooter from a year ago in Ryan Kemrite, but return plenty of firepower in the backcourt with which to surround James. Lovell Cabbil, Caleb Homesley, Elijah Cuffee and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz likely occupy starting spots most of the year after turning in successful 2017-18 campaigns. Cabbil had a slightly down year shooting the ball last season, but he handles the rock well and is a major scoring threat on a nightly basis. His ability to drive the lane and draw contact and score in isolation is valuable, and he’s a good perimeter defender. Homesley ranked 2nd in the Big South in DR% last year (right behind James) and serves as the “4-man” in McKay’s 4-guard lineup. Defensively, Homesley is super-versatile, able to guard several spots on the floor – last season he notched the 12th best block rate and 2nd best steal rate in the Big South. Cuffee, a Big South All-Freshman team member last year, is mostly a three-point shooter offensively and is also a good wing defender on the other end.
Pacheco-Ortiz had another solid year distributing and shooting the ball. He’s about as efficient a player as they come in the mid-major ranks and should continue to be a steady force running the Flame offense. Last season, GPO shot a 2P/3P/FT slash of .493/.431/.865 and scored 0.921ppp in the pick-n-roll (82th percentile nationally, per Synergy).
McKay can reach deep into his bench this season, particularly in the backcourt. Aside from the aforementioned guards and wings, McKay returns sophomore Keegan McDowell, another three-point specialist, and welcomes DIII transfer Keenan Gumbs and freshmen Josh Price and Darius McGhee. Gumbs won his conference’s Player of the Year award last season and looks very good on film. He’s athletic and has the ability to score from three-point land or off the bounce. It’ll be interesting to see how his game translates to DI, but a 6’5” do-it-all scoring wing sounds pretty good to me. He could start for the Flames in 2018-19. Price and McGhee each will fill back-up roles at the 1 and 2 spot. Price is Mark Price’s kid, a money three-point shooter and solid ball handler (obviously). McGhee is a ridiculous leaper, able to throw down highlight reel dunks at just 5’9”. Both could be great A-Sun players down the road.
Bottom Line: Liberty has all the tools to win the NCAA Tourney auto-bid in its first season in the A-Sun. McKay’s defense should be a tough one for fellow A-Sun squads to crack (the league ranked 29th in 3PA rate last season) and his offense should be better with increased experience, major depth, and a dynamic inside/outside scoring punch.
3. Florida Gulf Coast
Key Returners: Dinero Mercurius, RaySean Scott, Ricky Doyle, Christian Carlyle
Key Losses: Brandon Goodwin, Zach Johnson, Christian Terrell, Antravious Simmons, Michael Gilmore
Key Newcomers: Haanif Cheatham (Marquette), Schadrac Casimir (Iona), Troy Baxter Jr. (UNLV), Zach Scott, Decardo Day, Caleb Catto
Outlook: FGCU was once again the class of the A-Sun last season, winning the conference by two games before falling short of the Big Dance in the postseason Tourney. Joe Dooley enjoyed five productive years at the helm of the Eagles, building on the success of Andy Enfield and his Dunk City crew. With Dooley’s departure this offseason to East Carolina, a new chapter starts in Fort Meyers under the leadership of 35-year old coach Michael Fly. Fly started at Florida State with Enfield and served under the current USC coach and Dooley since 2011. FGCU loses a ton of production from last season (arguably its four most important players depart), but the Eagles still have plenty of talent returning and bring in some major transfer reinforcements.
As Fly served under Dooley, it’s safe to assume FGCU continues its style of play from a season ago. Dooley ramped up the tempo more last year than in previous seasons, but the core goal of his system stayed the same. Like UNC, FGCU looks to push off the defensive glass and score in transition. When in the half-court, the Eagles use their size to bully opponents on the glass and in the paint. While outside shooting wasn’t a major part of Dooley’s offense, the Eagles still hit 37.3% of their three-point shots in 2017-18 and return two players, Dinero Mercurius and Christian Carlyle, that can light it up from deep.
Mercurius connected on 42.3% of his threes last season in conference play, the 5th best mark in the A-Sun. He likely starts this year as a three-point specialist alongside Fly’s two biggest transfer gets, Haanif Cheatham and Schadrac Casimir. Cheatham received a hardship waiver in August, meaning he’ll be immediately eligible for the Eagles. The former Marquette guard was a borderline All-Conference player in the Big East and should challenge for A-Sun Player of the Year in his junior season. Cheatham’s ability to score, shoot, drive, and defend should make him a force in the A-Sun. Casimir comes by way of Iona where he was one of the better players in the MAAC, averaging 10.4ppg. The 5’10” guard likes to play off the ball but will probably need to run some point at FGCU with freshman Zach Scott being the only other option. In his three (plus 4 games) collegiate seasons, Casimir has hit 43.4% of his 472 deep-ball tries and led the MAAC in TS% and eFG% last year.
The aforementioned Christian Carlye, Zach Scott, and freshman Caleb Catto will fill out Fly’s backcourt rotation. All three are capable scorers from the wing and can create offense. JUCO newbie Decardo Day, a former Southern Utah Thunderbird, could also make an impact on the wing after averaging double figures at Iowa Western last season.
Inside, Fly will turn to returning big men Ricky Doyle (formerly of Michigan) and RaySean Scott, and UNLV transfer Troy Baxter Jr. for production. Doyle is a good rim protector and rebounder that didn’t see as much time as expected last season competing with Antravious Simmons and Michael Gilmore. Scott is an aggressive rebounder, decent interior defender, and strong finisher inside. Baxter could be a real breakout candidate after coming to UNLV as a top 100 recruit in 2016. His ability to play the 3 or 4 and impact the game on both sides of the ball will be huge for FGCU’s cause in defending its title.
Defensively, the Eagles were the best squad in the A-Sun last year, mixing in zone and walling off the paint and making opponents beat them from outside the arc. FGCU should once again be one of the better rebounding teams in the conference with its elite size, and the additions of athletes in Baxter and Cheatham should keep them defending at a high level.
Bottom Line: Nay-sayers of the Eagles this year may point to the squad’s immense talent departures this offseason and the coaching transition as reasons to think they fall out of the A-Sun top three. I counter with this: Fly is a long-time FGCU assistant that should be able to make a seamless transition into the head coaching role and very few teams can match the talent influx of Baxter / Cheatham / Casimir. Expect FGCU to be right near the top of the A-Sun standings when all is said and done this year.
4. North Florida
Key Returners: Ivan Gandia-Rosa, Noah Horchler, Garrett Sams, JT Escobar, Wajid Aminu, Trip Day, Ryan Burkhardt
Key Losses: Osborn Blount
Key Newcomers: Ezekiel Balogun (JUCO), Cam Copeland, Carter Hendricksen, Dorian James
Outlook: 2017-18 was one of the worst seasons in Matthew Driscoll’s 9-year tenure at the helm of North Florida, as his Ospreys sputtered to a 14-19 (7-7) record. Not much was expected last season for an extremely young team that lost all-time program great Dallas Moore, but this year should be different. Driscoll returns all five starters and his 6th man from last year’s squad and the Ospreys look to be a legitimate A-Sun title contender once again.
If basketball were purely an offensive game, UNF may have made the Tournament last year. No A-Sun offense was as efficient as the Ospreys’, an offense predicated on running in transition, spacing the floor, and bombing away from deep. Driscoll often plays lineups where all five guys on the floor are a threat to pull from deep, which can be incredibly difficult for opposing teams to guard, especially when UNF hit 37.5% of its 3P tries in 2017-18.
Unfortunately for UNF, defense is a large part of the game of basketball. Only six teams in the country were worse defensively per KenPom than the Ospreys, a squad that gave up easy looks at the bucket as often as Jon Rothstein tweets an Art Lovely quote. Driscoll ran zone at the 11th highest rate in the country last year, but it just wasn’t effective (to be fair, his man-to-man schemes were even worse). UNF’s goal on defense is to take away the three-point line, playing an extended 2-3 variety, which allows easy penetration to the bucket and second chance points off the glass. Considering Driscoll’s teams have ranked in the bottom 15 of the country two out of the past three years (one year they were 286th), the porousness likely doesn’t change dramatically in 2018-19.
North Florida’s offense is led by junior point guard Ivan Gandia-Rosa, an excellent offensive catalyst that ranked 1st in the A-Sun in assist rate and assists per game last season. Gandia-Rosa sets the table for his fellow Ospreys, led his team in scoring in 2017-18, finishes from all three levels of the floor, and feasts on pick-n-rolls. He’ll be joined by 2-guard JT Escobar in the backcourt, a former Ole Miss Runnin’ Rebel and three-point specialist on offense. Last season, Escobar hit 43% of his 186 long-ball tries. Gandia-Rosa is going to play a ton of minutes this season due to lack of proven backcourt depth, but sophomore Brian Coffey II and Ryan Burkhardt should see the floor. Burkhardt shot just 3 2PFG last season versus 55 3PFG, hitting 50.9% of the latter.
UNF’s frontcourt is talented and deep, led by 2017-18 2nd-Team All-Conference member and A-Sun Newcomer of the Year Noah Horchler, juniors Garrett Sams and Wajid Aminu, and sophomore Trip Day. Horchler is arguably the most important player on the UNF roster, a top five A-Sun rebounder that can score in the post and knock down the three-ball. Defensively, Horchler actually tries to keep UNF competitive, ranking 2nd in the league in block rate in 2017-18. Sams is yet another knockdown outside shooter, hitting over 40% of his 3PFG in his two-year collegiate career. He’s also a threat to score off the bounce ranking top 3 in the conference in FT rate each of the past two seasons.
Aminu and Day will compete for a starting spot alongside Horchler. Aminu earned the lion’s share of the starts last season due to his more “defensive-minded” nature and superiority on the boards. Day is the better offensive player, shooting a scorching 45.2% from deep in conference play and finishing effectively on post-ups. Both forwards will see plenty of PT this season.
Driscoll has plenty of options on his bench to plug on the wing. Ezekiel Balogun, a JUCO import and former Citadel Bulldog, looks to be the most ready of the newcomers to contribute. At 6’6” with a 7’1” wingspan, Balogun is a two-way dream on the floor, able to create “stocks” on defense, rebound on both ends, and shoot from the outside on offense. Freshmen Cam Copeland, Carter Hendricksen, and Dorian James all could see some floor time this season at the 3 or 4.
Bottom Line: This roster has zero seniors, meaning UNF could be at the top of the A-Sun for years to come. The Ospreys are one of four squads that have the ability to claim the auto-bid to the Big Dance this season, but the defensive end has to improve for Driscoll to get his team to the Promised Land.
Key Returners: Abdul Lewis, Diandre Wilson, Zach Cooks, Shyquan Gibbs, Reilly Walsh, Shawndale Jones, Mohamed Bendary, Donovan Greer
Key Losses: Anthony Tarke
Key Newcomers: Diego Willis, Souleymane Diakite, Kjell de Graaf
Outlook: Brian Kennedy enters his third year at the helm of NJIT coming off a season in which he improved his squad’s conference record by 4 games. 2016-17 was a disaster year for the Highlanders, but much of that performance can be attributed to the season-ending injury to star player Damon Lynn. Last season, NJIT held its own in the A-Sun, finishing 4th in the conference despite its youth. This year, Kennedy brings back everyone of consequence except former 1st Team All-League forward Anthony Tarke. With four starters returning and a seasoned bench, the Highlanders look to be positioned to challenge for a spot near the top of the league.
NJIT was the A-Sun’s best three-point shooting team in conference play last season, scorching the net at a 40.4% clip - a stark contrast to its last-place 2PFG%. Kennedy deploys a Princeton-esque style of attack, preaching ball movement, basket cuts, and exploiting mismatches. Given this style, it should come as no surprise that the Highlanders were the A-Sun’s slowest team last season, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t look to run. Kennedy’s squad runs a high-pressure defensive scheme designed to force turnovers and NJIT ramped up this pressure in 2017-18. Kennedy decreased the amount of zone he played and increased NJIT’s full-court press rate from 2% in 2016-17 to 11%. The Highlanders ranked 16th in the country last year in percentage of shots taken within 10 seconds following a steal, but in the bottom 100 after opponent scores and defensive rebounds.
With a bevy of combo guards at his disposal, it’s no wonder why Kennedy chose to implement more full-court pressure last season: NJIT played the 63rd most bench minutes in the country in 2017-18, mostly in the backcourt. Starting at point guard this year should be Zach Cooks, a 5’9” sophomore that only started one game last season but logged more minutes than Reilly Walsh, a 30-game starter. Cooks was a member of the A-Sun’s All-Freshmen Team after ranking 2nd in the league in steal rate and shooting 41.7% from deep (51.9% in conference play). When given the opportunity, Cooks is a potential game changer: case in point, last year against Stetson, the diminutive guard played all 40 minutes and notched 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Walsh isn’t a bad player by any means, but he doesn’t influence the game like Cooks does (at least offensively); he serves as a reliable three-point shooter and strong defender. Aside from Walsh and Cooks, look for senior Diandre Wilson, junior Shyquan Gibbs, sophomore Shawndale Jones, and senior Donovan Greer all to carve out significant playing time in the backcourt. Wilson is a playmaker on offense, a go-to scorer that can fill it up via multiple ways. While he was efficient from behind the arc last year, Wilson shot only 27.8% on 2P jumpers and 48.5% near the rim, two stats he drastically needs to improve in 2018-19. Gibbs is yet another good shooter and good defender; in 2017-18, the 6’1” guard shot 55.2% on 46 attempts from deep. Jones is a breakout candidate this year after turning in an impressive freshman season. Like Wilson, Jones can score from all three levels of the floor and contributes in every area of the game. Greer is mainly a three-point specialist.
The guards on this team are talented and plentiful, but the Highlanders’ best player is in the frontcourt. Abdul Lewis, a 2nd Team All-A-Sun member last season, returns to provide a forceful presence inside the paint on both ends of the floor. Lewis is an elite rebounder, owning the two best rebounding seasons in NJIT history and leading the conference in rebounding last year. Offensively, Lewis drew the 2nd most fouls and got to the line at the 2nd highest rate in the A-Sun last season, was effective in the post, and showcased his developing three-point shot (10/25 40%). Without Tarke, Lewis should become the focal point of Kennedy’s offensive attack.
Senior Mohamed Bendary likely starts alongside Lewis at the 4 or 5. The pair played only 63 possessions together on the floor last season, but NJIT posted a ridiculous 1.40ppp when they did and allowed just 0.93ppp. Yes, that is an extremely small sample size, but that is ENCOURAGING. Bendary is more of a paint-bound presence, so it would behoove the Highlanders if Lewis continued to explore his three-point game. Junior Taj Price and sophomore San Antonio Brinson represent the primary frontcourt options off the pine.
Kennedy also welcomes three newcomers into the fold. 6’3” guard Diego Willis will add to the already immense depth at the 1/2 spot. Willis is the youngest member of Mexico’s national team and will likely be an impact player down the road. Inside, Souleymane Diakite of Mali and Kjell de Graaf of the Netherlands will look to crack the frontcourt rotation. De Graaf is especially intriguing given his 6’10” size and ability to shoot the three.
Bottom Line: NJIT has the talent to compete near the top of the A-Sun this year. This conference is better than it has been in recent memory with FGCU, UNF, Liberty, and Lipscomb all legit title contenders, so the Highlanders face a tough road to the auto-bid even with their significant roster continuity.
Key Returners: JD Notae, Jace Hogan, Tanner Rubio, Jalyn Hinton
Key Losses: Devin Harris, Cody Helgeland, Antwon Clayton
Key Newcomers: Dave Bell (Ohio State), Quinton Forrest (Bethune-Cookman), Aamahne Santos (JUCO), DeAnthony McCallum (JUCO), KJ Fitzgerald, Tyreese Davis, Bryce Workman, Donovan Forte
Outlook: Jacksonville finished 3rd in the A-Sun last year, but the conference was arguably the weakest it’s ever been outside of Florida Gulf Coast and Lipscomb. Per KenPom, despite their 3rd place conference finish, the Dolphins were just the 320th best team in the country. Tony Jasick enters his fifth year at the helm but has yet to gain much momentum after Cliff Warren’s relatively successful tenure. The Dolphins have a lot of talent returning from prior year and an impressive incoming class of recruits, but lose A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year and 2nd Team All-Conference member Devin Harris. Without their invaluable point guard, it’s unlikely we see JU end its 32-year Tourney drought.
The Dolphins were +0.15ppp when Harris played last season versus when he sat, a significant margin. Harris was an elite perimeter defender and ran the point for a squad that’s struggled with turnovers in recent history. Even with Harris, though, JU was still the worst offense in the A-Sun, relying heavily on inefficient two-point tries to score the rock. In 2017-18, JU ranked 6th in the country in percentage of points scored from 2P-range, a mixture of working the ball through cuts in the lane and settling for low percentage pull-ups off pick-n-rolls.
Defensively, JU was actually solid, ranking 2nd in the A-Sun in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Jasick pulled back on his 1-3-1 zone looks last year, but still mixed them in with a steady diet of man-to-man. Over the past couple seasons, JU has been consistently gashed at the rim, but that may change in 2018-19 with the arrival of Ohio State transfer Dave Bell (formerly David Bell – guess he’s just Dave now). Bell was a 3/4 star recruit coming out of HS in 2014 but never panned out for the Buckeyes. He should find success in the A-Sun where he can provide the Dolphins with much needed rim protection and rebounding. Along with Bell comes freshman Bryce Workman, a legit 3-star prospect with a long body and a pro pedigree (Dad played in the NBA). He may not start right away, but Workman will be an asset for JU off the bench and a potential star down the road.
In addition to Workman, Jasick will turn to returning senior Jace Hogan and sophomore Jalyn Hinton for production near the rim. Hogan ranked 4th in the league in scoring and 6th in rebounding but failed to etch his name on an All-Conference squad last season. The former Navy forward made a large impact on the conference in year 1 and should be one of JU’s best offensive options once again. Defensively, Hogan is no rim protector at 6’6”, but he’ll have Bell to back him up in 2018-19. Hinton, an All-Freshman Team member last season, is listed as a guard on the JU roster, but you wouldn’t know that looking at his box scores. Hinton shot zero threes last season and 85.6% of his shot attempts came near the rim (led the conference in FG% at 70.6%). He’s all drive all the time on offense and defensively, he contributes as a shot blocking presence (2nd in A-Sun in BPG) and capable wing defender.
In the backcourt, Jasick will rely on the 2017-18 A-Sun Freshman of the Year JD Notae for production. Notae scorched the nets from deep last year (40.7%) but was very inefficient from inside the arc, falling victim to questionable shot selection (a microcosm of JU). Defensively, Notae ranked 3rd in the league in SPG and could be a natural defensive replacement for the superlative Harris. Look for Notae to shine in his second season.
Tanner Rubio likely spends more time at the point this year without Harris, a position he manned often in 2016-17 with mixed results (TO city). Rubio can shoot, but his 49.1% three-point percentage as a freshman tanked to just 30.7% as a sophomore – Jasick needs Rubio to get back to rookie year numbers or he’ll be forced to use his talented corps of newbies.
That talented corps of newbies includes Bethune-Cookman transfer Quinton Forrest, freshmen KJ Fitzgerald, Donovan Forte, and Tyreese Davis and JUCO imports Aamahne Santos and DeAnthony McCallum. Forrest was productive in the MEAC back in 2016-17, ranking 2nd in the conference in eFG% with a shooting slash of .606/.438/.541 (2P/3P/FT – ignore that last number). He’s a versatile defender (5th in MEAC in steal rate) and will contribute to the Dolphin cause as a capable rebounder. Santos and Fitzgerald will push Rubio for minutes at the point. Last season in JUCO, Santos shot 43% from downtown and averaged over 5.0apg. McCallum is the other main guy to watch out of this group, a big-time scorer that average 18.5ppg in the JUCO ranks last year.
Bottom Line: Jacksonville has the talent to remain in the top half of the A-Sun standings in 2018-19. The Harris loss may limit the Dolphins’ ceiling, but with a promising sophomore and newcomer class, combined with Jace Hogan, JU should be able to make some noise this season.
7. Kennesaw State
Key Returners: Tyler Hooker, Kyle Clarke, Kosta Jankovic, Isaac Mbuyamba, Bryson Lockley
Key Losses: James Scott, Nick Masterson, Jordan Jones, Anthony Wilson
Key Newcomers: Bobby Parker (JUCO), Danny Lewis (UCF), CJ Washington, Ugo Obineke, Antonio Spencer (Redshirt), Adili Kuerban, Pietro Agostini
Outlook: Al Skinner is a far cry away from the ACC and has yet to do much of anything at Kennesaw State, a school that has never experienced an above-.500 record in Division I. With the loss of leading scorers James Scoot and Nick Masterson (who shot a ridiculous 55.1% from beyond the arc last year), the Fighting Owls will have to do a whole lot of fighting to stay competitive in the Atlantic Sun.
Skinner is known for running the flex offense; an attack that uses constant motion, down screens, away screens, and (of course) flex screens to find easy looks in the paint or in space on the perimeter. Every player needs to be a somewhat “jack-of-all-trades”, able to shoot, pass, and dribble to execute this offense correctly. Because of this, roster continuity can be key to a successful season, as the offense, while simple, is nuanced and better fit for a team that has played significant minutes together. KSU hasn’t had the requisite continuity (or talent) to really excel in Skinner’s flex offense, but hey, they’re still gonna run it anyway.
Given the design of the flex, it should come as no surprise that the Owls ranked 7th in the country in percentage of points scored within the arc, 1st in percentage of possessions used via the cut, and 6th in percentage of possessions used off screens. Skinner also preaches crashing the boards, which led to the Owls ranking #1 in the A-Sun in offensive rebounding rate (and 2nd in FT rate). Scott and Masterson were KSU’s primary scorers last season, so Skinner will need his former role players and newcomers to step up on the offensive end.
Guards Tyler Hooker and Kyle Clarke and forward Kosta Jankovic are the most “prolific” scorers returning to the fold. Hooker is the “PG”, though there really isn’t such a thing in this offense, a steady ball-handling presence and a player that gets to the FT line at a high rate (9th in the conference in FT rate last year). Clarke is all “inside-the-arc”, eschewing three-pointers in favor of closer looks to the cup. He’ll either start alongside Hooker or back him up at the point guard spot. Defensively, Clarke ranked 1st in the conference last season in steal rate. Jankovic is a wing / 4-man that can pass and shoot well enough to be successful in Skinner’s offense.
Teaming at the 5-spot will be juniors Isaac Mbuyamba and Bryson Lockley, two plodding bigs that focus more on glass cleaning and rim protection versus scoring the basketball. Mbuyamba ranked 2nd in the league in OR% and 1st in block rate last year, while Lockley ranked 7th in OR% and 2nd in block rate. The pair rarely shared the floor last season, and when they did the team scored a paltry 0.83ppp, a hideous mark. As such, expect one of the bigs to come off the pine in 2018-19. They’ll be pushed for playing time by redshirt freshman Antonio Spencer, Ugo Obineke, and Pietro Agostini.
Fighting for starting spots this year will be JUCO import Bobby Parker, UCF transfer Danny Lewis (eligible second semester), and freshmen CJ Washington and Adili Kuerban. Parker is a big-time athlete and a good outside shooter; his versatility makes him a natural fit for the flex offense. Lewis is another versatile flex-made wing, and Washington is a shooter and ball-handler.
Defensively, KSU extends man pressure in the half-court and focuses on taking away the three-ball and forcing turnovers. In 2017-18, the Owls led the A-Sun in TO rate and were one of the league’s best in limiting three-point attempts and keeping opponents’ 3PFG% low.
Bottom Line: Skinner is a long-time and accomplished head coach, but even he will be unlikely to bring the Owls out of their 12-year Division I slump. The Owls should once again be an average offensive and defensive team from an A-Sun perspective, which means they’ll likely be a bottom-50 team in the country.
Key Returners: Abayomi Iyiola, Christiaan Jones, Leo Goodman
Key Losses: Divine Myles, BJ Glasford, Luke Doyle, Angel Rivera, Larry Dennis
Key Newcomers: Ricardo Lynch (JUCO), Jahlil Rawley (JUCO), Marques Sumner (JUCO), Ricky Gouety (JUCO), Jalen Crutchfield
Outlook: Five seasons under Corey Williams have resulted in... well... nothing really of consequence for the Stetson Hatter basketball program. The former Florida State assistant has notched just 19 total conference wins over those five seasons and his squads have finished either dead last or second to last in the A-Sun in each. With the loss of five starters this offseason including all-time program great Divine Myles, the Hatters look to be a sure bet to once again finish near the conference’s basement.
Williams runs an uptempo style of offense that uses a heavy dose of pick-n-roll. The departed Myles and Angel Rivera were experts at running the offense off ball screens, but with both guards now gone, questions abound in the Stetson backcourt. Returning off-guards Christiaan Jones and Leo Goodman likely see some starting time this year, but both function primarily as spot-up shooters on offense. Sophomore Kenny Aninye, a capable shooter and driver, and JUCO transfer Jahlil Rawley will duke it out for the starting point guard spot. Rawley is a ball hawk on defense with his quickness and size, and has the athleticism to finish above the rim on the break.
Stetson’s best returning player is sophomore Abayomi Iyiola, a 6’9” forward that earned a spot on the league’s All-Freshman team in 2017-18 and led the conference in offensive rebounding rate. Offensively, Iyiola does most of his damage by way of put-backs, but he also can score effectively off basket cuts or post looks. On the other end, Iyiola is a good rim protector, ranking 8th last year in the A-Sun in block rate.
Alongside Iyiola in the frontcourt will be a combination of JUCO transfers Ricardo Lynch and Ricky Gouety and redshirt sophomore Clay Verk. Lynch is a much better player than his JUCO stats would suggest (6.5ppg 3.8rpg); he runs the floor well and possesses excellent athleticism and versatility on both ends. Gouety projects as an active rebounder and shot blocker. Verk comes off an ACL tear and provides floor spacing at the 4-spot.
Williams’s remaining backcourt rotation includes sophomore Keith Matthews, a 6’7” wing that can play all three perimeter spots, Marques Sumner, a JUCO off-guard that shot 40% from three last season, and Jalen Crutchfield, a semi-coveted freshman with a good outside shot. All three could carve out minutes off the pine or even in the starting five in 2018-19.
Defensively, Stetson was good last season from a conference perspective at forcing turnovers and rebounding the basketball, but overall the Hatters were a poor defensive squad. Williams mixes in zone with his man-to-man looks, but has yet to finish outside of the bottom 50 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings.
Bottom Line: Stetson is a team full of unknowns. Williams will need one of his former role players or newcomers to step up and deliver offensively, because as good as Iyiola is, he isn’t going to be able to be a regular go-to scorer. On the other end of the floor, nothing about this roster composition suggests a major improvement. Expectations are never really high at Stetson, but Williams needs to start turning his program around if he wants to hang on to his position.
9. North Alabama
Key Returners: Kendall Stafford, Kendarius Smith
Key Losses: Sharwyn McGee, Jeff Hodge, Tavaras Tolliver, Adrian Smith, Trenton Clayton
Key Newcomers: Jamari Blackmon, Payton Youngblood (JUCO), Cameron Diggs (JUCO), Tavon King (JUCO), Christian Andrew, Logan Windeler, Cantavio Dutreil, Aleksa Matic, Emmanuel Littles, Sean Elmore, Andrew Morrisey
Outlook: Let’s all give a warm welcome to the newest Division I college basketball program: the North Alabama Lions. UNA begins its Division I tenure as KenPom’s 337th ranked team in the preseason, a reflection on the move from DII, the significant amount of players leaving the program from 2017-18, and the introduction of a new coach. By all accounts new head coach Tony Pujol is an excellent hire for a school looking to start off on the right foot. Pujol comes from the Anthony Grant coaching tree, serving under the current Dayton head coach at VCU and Alabama before spending two years on Allen Edwards’ Wyoming coaching staff. He inherits a squad that returns just two key players from a season ago, but thankfully those two players happen to be UNA’s most valuable from 2017-18.
Kendall Stafford is the go-to scorer for the Lions, a senior wing that led UNA in scoring and ranked second in rebounding in 2017-18. Stafford is a force on the glass and is a very versatile scorer on offense, able to post up smaller guards, drive to the cup, and shoot from the outside. Last season, Stafford shot a scorching 45.8% from the land of plenty on a high volume, and should be one of the better shooters in the A-Sun this season. Also, if it’s any cause for hope, Stafford was recently voted preseason A-Sun Player of the Year via fan vote, so he’s got that going for him.
Kendarius Smith is UNA’s other key returner, the second leading scorer in 2017-18 and the team’s point guard. Smith is a quick guard capable of running an offense; last year, he dished out 3.4apg and shot 38.5% from beyond the arc. He’ll play Robin to Stafford’s Batman (or Ken to Ken’s Ken) in 2017-18.
Everyone else on this roster is brand new. In the backcourt, the main starting / playing time candidates include freshman Jamari Blackmon, JUCO transfer Tavon King, and freshman Aleksa Matic. Blackmon chose UNA over several other mid-major suitors and comes in with the reputation of being a tough, physical guard that can get to the rack and fill it up from deep. King has holy shit athleticism, able to rise above defenders despite standing just 6’0”. Like Blackmon, King is a versatile scorer and should be an impactful ball hawk on the defensive end. Matic is a crafty Serbian combo guard that brings with him experience from the FIBA U18 circuit. Freshmen Sean Elmore, a good shooter, and Christian Andrew could also see some PT this season.
Up front, Pujol’s options include JUCO transfers Cameron Diggs and Payton Youngblood, and freshmen Logan Windeler, Cantavio Dutreil, Emmanuel Littles, and Andrew Morrisey. Diggs likely starts at either the 4 or 5, coming in as a former 3-star HS recruit in the class of 2016. The 6’9” junior is a good-sized power forward with guard skills and plus athleticism. Youngblood is a wing that averaged 12ppg and 5rpg in JUCO while shooting 40% from three. He can handle the ball on offense and finish above the rim in traffic, and should be able to play the 2-4 for Pujol. Windeler is a skilled post with an evolving face up game, a potential floor spacer down the road. Dutreil and Littles are both long shot blockers and rebounders – either player could anchor the UNA defense.
Style-wise, it’s still an unknown on how Pujol’s Lions will play. Grant is known as a defensive coach, so maybe Pujol brings with him some of that old VCU / Alabama ball pressure – he certainly has the athletes to do so. Offensively, UNA ran a ton in transition, getting out on the break and letting the ball fly. Wyoming was a top-15 tempo squad in each of the two years Pujol served as an assistant.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to slot UNA any higher than 9th heading into the year. The Lions have too many newcomers and unknowns to project how they’ll perform. However, by all accounts Pujol is a good coach and teams like Stetson and Kennesaw State aren’t exactly world beaters near the bottom of the conference.