All Conference Awards
POY: Garrison Mathews, G, Jr., Lipscomb
Coach of the Year: Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast
Newcomer of the Year: JT Escobar, G, R So., North Florida
Freshman of the Year: Tristan Jarrett, G, Kennesaw State
1. Florida Gulf Coast
Key Returners: Brandon Goodwin, Christian Terrell, Zach Johnson, Antravious Simmons
Key Losses: Demetrius Morant, Marc-Eddy Norelia
Key Newcomers: Ricky Doyle, Dinero Mercurius, Michael Gilmore, Brady Ernst
Postseason Projection: 14 seed
Outlook: Since FGCU handed him the keys to Dunk City, new “mayor” Joe Dooley has picked up where Andy Enfield left off, capturing two A-Sun regular season titles and back-to-back tournament bids. In response to his success, bigger schools have come sniffing around Fort Myers, but despite varying degrees of interest from Saint Louis, New Mexico, UMass, and UNC Wilmington, Dooley will continue to reign over the Atlantic Sun with a roster loaded with high major talent.
Although Dooley never actually coached for Roy Williams (he arrived at Kansas as an assistant the year Roy left for UNC), he’s turned FGCU into team Ol’ Roy would smile upon. The Eagles look to push when it’s there, with electric PG Brandon Goodwin running the show in a Joel Berry-esque role, but if they can’t get an easy basket, FGCU is more than happy to pull the ball out and let their frontline simply overwhelm opponents. That frontline isn’t just dominant in the A-Sun, though – it’s packed with high-major talent that will give nearly any opponent fits.
The onslaught on the offensive glass and in the post via Dooley’s methodical motion/flex offense will feature two former VCU players (6’9 Antravious Simmons and 6’10 Michael Gilmore – also was at Miami for a semester), a Michigan transfer (6’10 Ricky Doyle), and a JUCO transfer who had previously committed to Iowa State and Xavier (6’10 Brady Ernst). FGCU was 13th in the country in percentage of shots taken at the rim and 31st in field goal percentage once there, both stats per hoop-math, and with that collection of talent and size, both figures could rise even higher this year. Goodwin can get into the lane at will against most A-Sun defenders, and the bigs will live off his clever dump-offs and drop passes if opponents help too far.
Dooley will also have the luxury of moving Goodwin off the ball at times (or even giving him breaks) thanks to incoming 5’2 freshman Darnell Rogers. Yes, that height is correct, and I’d say the photographer was pretty cruel for having him stand in the team picture:
But make no mistake, Rogers can play at this level – as you’d expect, he’s lightning quick and has the ball on a string, using his insane change of direction to keep opponents off balance and create advantageous situations for his teammates (Goodwin is drooling at the opportunity of attacking frantic closeouts from the wing). Of course, FGCU also has excellent wing threats three-year starters Christian Terrell and Zach Johnson. Neither guy is a lights-out shooter, but they can hit enough to keep defenses honest and prevent them from doubling too hard on the Eagles’ monsters in the paint. Dinero Mercurius is the cherry on top of the backcourt sundae, as his 38% shooting on 228 attempts in junior college adds the final missing element of FGCU’s wing corps.
All that said, the Eagles actually had a stout defense last year, as well. It wasn’t elite on a national level, but it was the best in the A-Sun on a per possession basis, using size and physicality to make scoring inside a chore. They didn’t clean up on the defensive glass like you’d expect them to, although Gilmore and Ernst should help correct that to a degree. Overall, this team goes as the offense goes.
Bottom Line: Dooley put together a strong non-conference slate knowing he has his best team yet – the Eagles have road games at Rhode Island and Wichita State, plus a home-and-home with Middle Tennessee, and generally avoided fattening up on 300+ teams at home. It probably won’t be enough to get them in the at-large conversation, but with so much talent in the fold, he hopes that it prepares them for a prominent run come March.
Key Returners: Garrison Mathews, Nathan Moran, Kenny Cooper, Eli Pepper, Rob Marberry, George Brammeier, Michael Buckland
Key Losses: Josh Williams
Key Newcomers: Andrew Fleming, Matt Rose
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: One of four Division I schools in Nashville, Tennessee (fun fact: I’ve had the privilege of writing all four Nashville previews this offseason!), Lipscomb watched as local rival and Battle of the Boulevard combatant Belmont moved to the Ohio Valley conference in 2012. You know who didn’t get super salty about it? Lipscomb! The two schools immediately played a home-and-home the following year (and every year since). Are you paying attention, Kansas fans?! Sorry, my agenda is getting in the way…
The two rivals playing each other is reminiscent of the confused Spiderman meme, as Bisons coach Casey Alexander played at Belmont under Rick Byrd in the early 90’s and coached under him for 16 seasons. As such, Lipscomb runs the same transition, drag-screen offense, with the goal of scoring before the defense can even get set. The offense focuses on having one rim-running big man (usually Rob Marberry or Eli Pepper) surrounded by three or four guards who can shoot and slash, and this year’s squad is loaded in that regard.
Garrison Mathews will challenge FGCU’s Brandon Goodwin for A-Sun Player of the Year, a prolific scorer who is dangerous sniping on the wing or occasionally as the offense’s primary ball-handler and PnR operator. Nathan Moran typically handles that “Austin Luke” role, and his combination of passing (2nd in the A-Sun in assist rate) and shooting (7th in the conference in 3P%) puts immense pressure on a scrambling-to-get-back defense. Newcomers Matt Rose and Andrew Fleming should play right away, as well – Rose is a stretch big (something the roster didn’t have last season), and Fleming is a high-IQ guard who can fill it up from downtown.
Having finally stocked the roster with enough athleticism and size, Alexander and the Bisons were able to play the pressure-centric man-to-man that Rick Byrd prefers. The last three years saw them play a large share of zone, while that frequency plummeted to 5% last season:
Rising sophomore guard Kenny Cooper was a large part of that thanks to his quick, compact frame, and his 3.4% steal rate was second in league play. His three-point stroke failed him last year, but Alexander will live with that as long as Cooper continues to be a shutdown defender. Marberry’s ability to change shots without fouling (too much) also helps give the perimeter more freedom to extend.
Of course, that extended pressure is not without its flaws – Lipscomb sent opponents to the free throw line at a league-worst rate, so if you take care of the ball, you can be efficient offensively. And on offense, Cooper and Moran were both shaky with the ball, often causing the Bisons to lose the turnover battle, despite their prowess in forcing them.
Bottom Line: With apologies to North Florida, this league is a two-team race this year. Lipscomb and FGCU split last year (surprisingly, the road team won both games), and I fully expect them to have a third matchup in the conference tournament title game. One higher-level thing to watch: will Alexander stay at Lipscomb for the long haul, much the same way his mentor (Byrd) has done at Belmont? Or will Alexander be Byrd’s eventual successor at Belmont after establishing his coaching abilities at his alma mater’s arichrival?
3. North Florida
Key Returners: Wajid Aminu, Garrett Sams
Key Losses: Dallas Moore, Chris Davenport, Aaron Bodager, Romelo Banks
Key Newcomers: JT Escobar, Trip Day, Ivan Gandia-Rosa, Noah Horchler, Wes Morgan
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: North Florida is one of the random teams I’ve gotten to see in person recently (they visited SLU in November 2015); seeing coach Matthew Driscoll’s 5-out offense in person was a pleasure, despite an inefficient loss. With very few exceptions, in order to get on the floor for Driscoll, you either need to 1) knock down threes or 2) be a versatile big man that can attack off the dribble while protecting the rim on defense.
The Ospreys’ return two primary rotation players (Garrett Sams and Wajid Aminu), and these two players perfectly embody those two chief tenets. Sams hit 42% of his threes last year, and his propensity for getting the free throw line earned plenty of free points. His efficiency suffered due to shooting an ugly 36% from inside the arc; his thin frame hurt his ability to finish in the paint. Aminu, younger brother of the Trailblazers’ Al-Farouq Aminu, is a supremely versatile player who took advantage of slower-footed defenders to attack the rim whenever possible. Although his shooting stroke looked broken last year (48% from the FT line, 6/24 from deep), I’d be surprised if Driscoll didn’t try to mold him into a perimeter threat.
Aminu also helped make Driscoll’s defensive strategy somewhat viable (4th in the league). UNF aims to take away the three-point line by not over-helping on penetration and rarely doubling post ups, instead relying on shot-blocking to bother would-be scorers. Newcomer big men Trip Day, Wes Morgan (freshmen) and Noah Horchler (JUCO) will compete to show the requisite positional flexibility to earn the starting nod alongside Aminu. The Ospreys’ lack of size can be a glaring issue, though, as teams that take care of the ball and pound it inside will feast in the paint.
The graduation of Dallas Moore is a massive blow, as he often bailed out the offense with his individual brilliance. In a small way, this might help the offense’s ball movement, as UNF’s assist rate plummeted from 54.8% in 2015-16 (111th nationally) to 46.6% in 2016-17 (300th), illustrating just how much they relied on Moore isolations. Two incoming guards will handle most of the facilitation, with Ole Miss transfer JT Escobar having more of a scoring mentality and Puerto Rican JUCO transfer Ivan Gandia-Rosa being a true pass-first PG (averaged 6.5 assists per game at College of Central Florida). Escobar, a former 3-star recruit, has enormous potential – I wouldn’t be surprised if he led the team in per game scoring right away.
Bottom Line: Despite heavy turnover on the roster, Driscoll once again has the talent to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid behind a scary offense that is always a threat to catch fire. The roster’s overwhelming youth (all but one of the scholarship players are freshmen or sophomores) will limit the team’s consistency, but the future continues to be bright in Jacksonville.
Key Returners: Abdul Lewis, Anthony Tarke, Chris Jenkins, Shyquan Gibbs
Key Losses: Damon Lynn, Tim Coleman, Rob Ukawuba, Osa Izevbuwa
Key Newcomers: Diandre Wilson, San Antonio Brinson, Shawndale Jones
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Disaster befell the Highlanders of NJIT last year, as program pillar Damon Lynn ruptured his Achilles tendon during a mid-January game at FGCU. The country’s active leader in points at the time of his injury, Lynn’s absence was simply too much for the Highlanders to overcome. They lost that game and the seven that followed, and two wins to end the regular season were hardly a consolation. Brian Kennedy, who is in year 2 after taking over for Jim Engles, now must rebuild around a talented frontcourt, all while in a conference where the nearest foe is 700 miles away.
It’s not quite “Chicago State in the WAC” level of idiocy, but NJIT being in the same league as four Florida schools (plus the others in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee) simply doesn’t make sense. Make the Highlanders the 10th team in the America East, let the A-Sun add as many teams as it wants from the MEAC (Florida A&M? South Carolina St.?), and voila! This isn’t hard, folks.
The smallest silver lining in Lynn’s terrible injury is that it forced NJIT to learn how to play without him, something they’ve rarely done over the past four seasons. Abdul Lewis, formerly of South Alabama, and sophomore Anthony Tarke each averaged 14ppg in the subsequent 11 games, and their complementary games (Lewis is the 6’10 paint presence, Tarke is a stretch four) make them a difficult matchup for many A-Sun opponents. Playing through the bigs is quite a change for an NJIT program that has long emphasized guardplay and shooting; last year’s excellent rebounding numbers indicated the shift towards Lewis and Tarke.
Another sophomore, Shyquan Gibbs, got all of the playing time he could handle after Lynn went down, playing 30 minutes or more in nine of the final 10 regular season games (broke his toe in the A-Sun tourney). He deferred to the upperclassmen quite a bit, though, and he’ll need to be more aggressive in his second year, or high-scoring JUCO transfer Diandre Wilson will usurp the starting spot. The perimeter has a ton of questions on the wing after major graduation losses, so while they’ll likely still shoot a ton of threes, the identity of those shooters is a mystery. Chris Jenkins knocked down 37% of his treys, and Tarke will likely fire away, but beyond that, Kennedy will hope that versatile freshman San Antonio Brinson, junior Reilly Walsh, and sophomore Donovan Greer can step into prominent roles this year.
Side note: I now know of people named Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio – we need a Waco Williams or a Lubbock Bryant to pop up somewhere. I want equal representation for all Texas cities! Another aside: please enjoy the NJIT team picture, frolicking in the quad:
Bottom Line: Without Lynn, the concerns around NJIT rightfully surround the offense, but the defense wasn’t exactly sparkling last year. Teams shot 54% from inside the arc and 38% from beyond it last year, both bottom-40 figures in the country last year, and the team’s matchup-ish 2-3 zone gives up open shots galore. The inexperience and defensive issues likely cap the Highlanders ceiling at a middle-of-the-road A-Sun finish.
5. Kennesaw St.
Key Returners: Nick Masterson, James Scott, Tyler Hooker, Kyle Clarke, Jordan Jones
Key Losses: Kendrick Ray, Aubrey Williams, Johannes Nielsen
Key Newcomers: Tristan Jarrett, Bryson Lockley
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: For the second straight year, Kennesaw State loses one of the country’s most vital players: in 2016, Yonel Brown graduated after leading the nation in percentage of minutes played, and this year, Kendrick Ray departs following a campaign in which he took the 13th-highest percentage of his team’s shots. The cupboard isn’t bare, but without a clear option to take over as a facilitator, the offense – and in particular, the shooting – will suffer.
That shooting (2nd in the country in 3P% as a team) was led by Nick Masterson, whose absurd 53.1% success rate ranked only behind Markus Howard’s supernova season at Marquette. Unfortunately, 87% of his makes were assisted, so he’ll need to add an element of creation to his game. The team’s elite percentage is also deceiving, too, as only Ray and Masterson really took threes – the team was 346th in three-point attempt rate. Otherwise, the Owls will rely on two high-usage sophomores in James Scott and Tyler Hooker to step into the playmaking role.
Al Skinner’s flex offense can be a balanced scoring system, but it’s mostly designed to get players facing mismatches. There’s so much movement off the ball that opponents are often forced to switch, and that’s how the Owls got Ray so many shots last year. Ideally, they’ll run more sets for Masterson this year, but others will need to step up as threats to prevent defenses from focusing on him. Scott, Kyle Clarke, and post man Jordan Jones can score some, but the biggest wildcard might be freshman Tristan Jarrett, a 3-star prospect per ESPN. He’s a big guard who lit it up at his Tennessee high school.
On the other end, Skinner’s man-to-man had some serious issues (285th in the country), but they did tighten up in conference play (3rd of the eight teams). They’ll run you off the three-point line and limit ball movement with their perimeter length, but teams still shot robust percentages from all over the court. Aubrey Williams was one of the country’s best defensive rebounders, and although he departs, Jones and Anthony Wilson appear ready to continue fill his shoes.
Bottom Line: Kennesaw has questions on both sides of the ball. Thankfully, so do a few other teams in the conference, and Al Skinner is a very solid A-Sun coach. Scott should have a massive breakout season, and Masterson could also have a bigger year with more shots available. The Owls won’t challenge the league’s top two, but a top-half finish is possible if things break right.
Key Returners: Devin Harris, Cody Helgeland, Tanner Rubio, Antwon Clayton
Key Losses: JR Holder, Darien Fernandez, Demontrez Austin, Marcel White, Darius Dawkins
Key Newcomers: Jace Hogan, Josh Wallace, JD Notae, Aahmane Santos, Damien Sears
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The second of Jacksonville’s two Division I, Atlantic Sun-affiliated colleges, the Dolphins have sadly struggled to keep up with North Florida in the River City Rumble in recent years (a combined 0-9 record against the Ospreys over the past 4 seasons). While they’ll have a chance to win a game in that series this year, JU has a relatively limited ceiling in Tony Jasick’s fifth season.
Jasick’s least favorite word relating to his team has to be “turnover,” for numerous reasons. The Dolphins were second in the country in weighted experience, and six contributing seniors graduated this offseason. Additionally, they were last in the A-Sun in turnover rate, coughing the ball up on 20% of their possessions in conference play. And finally, while they were actually the best at forcing turnovers on D, Darien Fernandez departs with his 4.3% steal rate (13th in the entire country), meaning that success may be tough to replicate this year.
The hope is that the defensive scheme – often a 1-3-1 with some trapping in the corners – was truly the source of the turnovers, not simply an overreliance on Fernandez’s quick hands. Devin Harris (a great name for fellow Wisconsin Badger fans) and Tanner Rubio both showed a penchant for getting deflections and steals, and Antwon Clayton, the team’s best and most versatile defender at 6’6, can cause mayhem whether in zone or man.
Still, though, they have absolutely no presence in the paint – teams shot 56.4% from 2-point range, 347th in the country, and that number ballooned to a seemingly impossible 61% in league play. Teams either shot threes or got all the way to the rim – opponents only took 21.6% of their shots from midrange last year, 335th-lowest in the country per hoop-math. That’s bad! Two-point jumpers are inefficient shots! Jasick will hope that Indian Hills JUCO transfer Radwan Bakkali can provide some sort of shot-blocking.
The hope will be that they can outscore teams, and Rubio looks like an excellent candidate to fuel that offense. He had your typical freshman turnover problems, but his flashes of passing combined with his lights-out shooting (53/108 from deep, 49%) portends a potential A-Sun star down the line. Cody Helgeland, a prototypical stretch four, is another floor stretcher. Navy transfer Jace Hogan gives them an actual inside scoring presence (he tore it up on their offseason Canada trip), and he and Clayton will also earn the Dolphins some second chance points with their work on the glass. The X-factors are JUCO guard Josh Wallace and freshman JD Notae. Both have serious scoring potential, and with the loss of star wing JR Holder, they’ll need the additional firepower.
Bottom Line: After an “impressive” 12-5 run through nonconference play (featuring wins against four MEAC teams and four non-D-I schools), the Dolphins eventually lost 6 of 8 games to close the year. The roster turnover and sieve-like defense are giant red flags, but at least they can latch onto Rubio and Hogan as building blocks for a potentially improved 2018-19 campaign, when Ohio State transfer Dave Bell becomes eligible.
7. USC Upstate
Key Returners: Mike Cunningham, Deion Holmes, Malik Moore, Ramel Thompkins, Jure Span, Jacob Schulte
Key Losses: Michael Buchanan, Josh Cuthbertson, Phillip Whittington
Key Newcomers: Cory Kaplan, Yeskin Walker-Williams, Pat Welch, Austin Nelson
Outlook: The big news from Spartanburg is the transition of power from longtime head coach Eddie Payne, who had been at Upstate since 2002 (when the school was still D-II and known as USC Spartanburg). Health concerns at the start of practice in early October forced Payne to retire due, allowing assistant Kyle Perry to take over on an interim basis. Perry has learned under Payne for eight years, and it’s expected that he’ll play a similar style to his mentor.
That style comes with questions this year, though. The Spartans’ two best post players are gone, and the offense’s focus on attacking the rim, both via post up and on the offensive glass, is reliant on having productive big men. Ramel Thompkins gives Perry a solid option as a stretch four, but beyond that, nothing is certain. Jacob Schulte returns after sitting out last season, and while he works hard on the offensive glass, he won’t be a 1-on-1 scoring option. Freshmen Isaiah Simpson and Avery Diggs will be pressed into duty right off the bat, but they’re both raw and will have serious growing pains.
With that in mind, Perry should explore gearing his attack more towards the team’s deep and promising perimeter group. Mike Cunningham is the gem, a pure shooter and capable ball-handler, though he’d be at his best focusing on wing scoring. Jure Span and JUCO transfer Pat Welch can move him off the ball at times, and though both will be mostly invisible in the scoring department, their unselfish style will help the team’s ball movement.
A deep stable of promising wings also indicates that smallball will be a possibility. Malik Moore and Deion Holmes are the experienced choices, two juniors who shot nearly identically from deep (35/105 for Moore, 34/103 for Holmes). Moore’s defensive rebounding prowess makes him the most likely to slidedown to the nominal four spot. Freshmen Cory Kaplan, Yeskin Walker-Williams, and Austin Nelson should all see the floor, as well, particularly if they can figure out the defensive scheme right away.
That scheme is primarily a conservative 2-3 zone; Payne’s teams have shunned turnovers over the past few years, and opponents are often free to bomb away from three-point range against the packed in defense. Without the monstrous Michael Buchanan to worry about in the middle, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Perry pick up the tempo, though – his collection of 6’3-to-6’7 players lends itself to a switching man-to-man, if he so chooses, and they might avoid getting shellacked on the glass if they have an assigned man to box out.
Bottom Line: Cunningham and some promising wings give the Spartans some intrigue, but the loss of their coach right as practice started and a questional pieces-to-scheme fit have me relatively low on Upstate this season. Perry could flip that on its head by playing a drastically different system, though, so there’s plenty of volatility in the Spartans’ potential outcomes.
Key Returners: Divine Myles, Luke Doyle, Angel Rivera, BJ Glasford, Leo Goodman
Key Losses: Derick Newton, Brian Pegg
Key Newcomers: Abayami Iyiola, Raine McKeython, Christiaan Jones, Keith Matthews
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Did you know Stetson is called the Hatters because John B. Stetson, maker of Stetson hats, had a strong affiliation with the university (obviously enough to have the school named after him)? I certaintly did not!
Let’s start with the negatives (and sadly, they are numerous). The Hatters really struggled on the glass last year, and both of their best big men – Derick Newton and Brian Pegg – both leave the program this season. Larry Dennis returns as one of the least efficient players in the conference, mostly due to his DeAndre Jordan-esque 36% free throw shooting, and he committed 9 fouls per 40 minutes on defense. Sadly, one of the few guys less efficient than Dennis is his backup, Clay Verk (shot 33% inside the arc, yikes). As a result, coach Corey Williams will look to newcomers Abayomi Iyiola, Ricky Gouety, and Keith Matthews for minutes up front. Iyiola is raw offensively, but with all of the team’s struggles inside, his rebounding and shot-blocking will be a welcome addition.
Williams ran an extremely conservative system, which is shocking considering how badly they were still beaten at the rim. BJ Glasford, Divine Myles, and Angel Rivera are a quick trio of guards, but Williams was hesitant to allow them to pressure at all given how soft the defense’s underbelly was. It’s a conundrum of “play to your strengths” vs. “hide your weaknesses;” both of which leave the Hatters exposed in one way or another.
Stetson’s strengths offensively were getting out in transition and taking care of the ball, mainly due to the Myles/Rivera tandem. They’re both jets with the basketball that excel at getting to the rim – combined, about half of their shots came in the restricted area – but their lack of size prevented them from finishing at an efficient rate. Christaan Jones is a bigger guard who should excel in the team’s fast-paced attack, and Williams hopes Leo Goodman and Luke Doyle can be a little more productive from deep.
Williams turns to a zone on defense at times simply to try something different – with his smallish guards and ineffectual big men, he’s essentially throw shit at the wall and hoping something sticks. I expect more of the same this year, as their efforts to boost their offense through transition continue to compromise their defensive rebounding, and size concerns leave them exposed in the paint.
Bottom Line: Williams is singing a positive tune this offseason, but aside from Myles, this team is sorely lacking in impact players. In his fifth season at the helm, he simply hasn’t been able to build any momentum in DeLand (never finished better than 5-13/4-10 in the league), and if Stetson settles into last again, it may be time to try someone new.